A Heroic King Lear

Guest blogger, Perry Mills writes…

In 1993 Adrian Noble directed King Lear for the RSC for the second time. I had seen his previous assault on the play in 1982, a production which contained a truly memorable performance by Antony Sher as the Fool. Apparently Harley Granville-Barker suggested to John Gielgud as he prepared to play the title role on one occasion, “Get yourself a light Cordelia.” Perhaps Michael Gambon would advise Lears designate, “Get yourself a mediocre Fool” since most reviewers seemed to focus on Sher, which was understandable.

Noble certainly appeared to have taken similar advice 11 years later; this time the spotlight was well and truly on the throne – and those words are not a cliché.

I had seen King Lear several times by then and adored the play, but it had never moved me to tears. And I felt sure it should.

I had been impressed and harrowed and shocked and fascinated at various times; but never powerfully moved.

And then I saw Robert Stephens take the role in 1993. Indeed, I saw him three times and on each occasion – sometimes at different moments, but always in the final scene – the critical faculties fell away and I just felt. Just felt… overwhelming grief and loss and pity.

Expectations were high: Stephens had given an award-winning performance as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays two years earlier with the same director. There was the sense that the actor had been waiting for the role all of his career – or perhaps it was the other way round. And Stephens was an ill man; in fact, the understudy had to perform the early performances. By all accounts, he was very good. This only added to the pressure.

It wasn’t a uniformly great production. Although on the whole the RSC had pulled in the First Team – Simon Russell Beale, David Bradley, Jenny Quayle, Owen Teale, David Calder – nevertheless there were some unnecessary things going on with a map on the floor and a globe which expelled red sand high upstage centre. There was real water in the storm scene, and that was impressive.

Truly centre stage, however, was Robert Stephens. I cannot convey the power of his performance by specific examples, however well he met the challenges – the curses, his exchanges with the Fool, his disintegration into madness, the heartbreaking meeting with Gloucester in Act IV, the waking up to Cordelia, the folly of his false hope in “birds i’th’cage”, his final appearance with the dead Cordelia. (Some audiences claim that he carried her on. However, each time I saw it a group of soldiers did the business whilst Lear fussed around them. Stephens was too weak to lift even Abigail McKern.) On this occasion, the whole was far greater than the parts. Particular moments simply contributed to the complete characterisation.

Stephens was an heroic actor, technically awesome (although a minor detail such as line accuracy was not always a priority) and prepared to take thrilling risks. However, more than anything else it was his capacity for utter simplicity that opened the floodgates – and I’m not talking about the rain effects.

Shakespeare can do every kind of emotional effect, and he does. But what is so thrilling, so extraordinary, and so moving is that capacity to reduce it right down. “Never, never, never, never, never” (V, iii).

And Robert Stephens understood that.

Perry Mills
Teacher, King Edward VI School
Stratford-upon-Avon