I saw King Lear again last night – a touring production in the Oxford Playhouse, with Michael Pennington, a very favourite actor of mine, as Lear. I go back quite a long way with both actor and play. On my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, back in 1978, I saw Michael Pennington play Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the Duke in Measure for Measure, and I have since seen him play Timon of Athens, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra), and double up as Claudius and Hamlet’s father’s ghost in Peter Hall’s production. And as for the play itself, it has haunted my mind ever since the age of eleven, when my parents took me to see a production at the Edinburgh Festival with Timothy West in the title role. That night, I was so excited by what I had seen, I couldn’t get to sleep. I have seen the play on stage several times since: by my count, last night’s performance was the ninth. There have been some extraordinary Lears amongst them – Brian Cox, John Wood, and Timothy West again, some thirty years after I had first seen him in the role. (I have also seen Robert Stephens’ much admired performance, but I saw him only at the end of the run, when it was obvious that he was physically exhausted, and not really up to it: he died shortly afterwards, and it was intimated that the physical exertion of playing the role hastened his demise.)
I think it’s fair to say I have been very close to King Lear over the years, although I should be careful about making such a claim: this huge, craggy monster of a play is not really something one can get very close to. But for over forty years now I have read and re-read it, seen television broadcasts, heard radio productions, listened to audio recordings, revisited it in my imagination God knows how many times – made it, in short, my own. I have no gift for memorising things, and don’t try to do it anyway, but I found, watching the play last night, that I could anticipate every line spoken; I could identify the omissions, the slight re-orderings; I could even tell at which point they were following the Quarto or the Folio text. One would think that when one gets to such a stage, the interest in the play itself would become a bit jaded, and focus not so much on the work, perhaps, but on how it is done this time round: how, after all, can one be shocked or overwhelmed by something one has been so familiar with for so long? But that was not the case. Not that I didn’t take an interest in how it was done this time round, and not that I didn’t make comparisons with previous interpretations: one can hardly help doing either. But the sheer elemental force of the play, a force so unremittingly powerful and startling that it seems to render all commentary both irrelevant and impertinent, remained undiminished.
Will there ever come an age, I wonder, when this play will not speak with such burning urgency to the issues of the times? The world is currently on fire. Perhaps it always was, and I am just noticing it now more intensely. Senseless hatred, cruelty and brutality on unimaginable scale, grotesque injustice, and dumb animal suffering – somehow, no matter how much the world changes, some things seem to remain with us, as if ineradicable. This is the world of King Lear. The centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We get a sense of being close to the apocalypse itself. And yet, when we came to the storm scenes at the centre of the play, I found myself asking just how we came here. Was this inevitable from the opening scene? One could certainly trace a coherent line from the opening scene to this raging tempest, a tempest both real and also of the mind, but could that line have been otherwise? If, say, all we had of the play was that opening scene, could we have guessed that this is what it would lead to? I don’t think so. If we had the opening scene alone, we would, I think have conjectured this to have been the start of a fairy-tale: we may have conjectured that the rest of the play would have been something like, say, Cymbeline. For that opening, though psychologically coherent, does have a fairy-tale feel to it. But how did we get from a fairy tale to … well, to this? Despite all the familiarity with the text that I had bragged about earlier, I honestly don’t know. There’s a mystery about art of this stature, no less than there is about life itself, that all the knowledge and understanding in the world cannot fathom. And, furthermore, I claim only familiarity with this play: knowledge and understanding are different matters.
We tend to think of the play these days as, essentially, a bleak play. Since Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production with Pau Scofield in the early 60s, we tend to think of it in Beckettian terms – dark, desolate, comfortless. But it was not so long ago that so distinguished a critic as Kenneth Muir (editor of the old Arden edition) was seeing it as essentially a Christian play – a play about a man who loses the whole world, but gains his soul. We like nothing better these days than to scoff at what we deem to be “sentimental”, but if it is indeed true that Muir’s view of it as a Christian play falls well short of telling the whole story, seeing the play through a Beckettian lens seems to me to fall similarly short. For although we see the most extreme evil and cruelty in this play, humanity is by no means presented solely in such terms. Indeed, it may be claimed that in no other work of literature are we presented with such overwhelming pictures of human good – of good that is tender, self-sacrificing, heroic. And Muir isn’t wrong in what he says: Lear does lose the whole world, and he does gain his soul. That is not the whole story, no, but is there any formulation of this work that can give us the whole story? In the end, we simply do not know. We do not know anything of the nature of the gods – whether, in their inscrutable way, they do indeed administer justice of sorts, or whether they see humanity as wanton boys see flies, and kill us for their pleasure. We do not even know whether the gods exist at all. The extreme good and extreme evil we see are all human good, and human evil: what need of gods or of devils when we can fulfil ourselves the roles of both? By the end, both good and evil are destroyed: so absolute is the sense of destruction that no-one even pauses to think of who should now rule, of how the country should now continue: such matters are important at the end of a Hamlet or of a Macbeth, but not here. Is the Good we see an irrelevance because it is crushed by the Evil? Or does the very presence of Good, miraculous as it is, redeem the world on some plane, despite all the Evil that engulfs it? The play offers us no hint of an answer either way. Lear speaks of taking upon us “the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies”, but even this is ambivalent: are we spying on behalf of God, who, by implication, cannot see what is happening in his creation? Or are we spying on God himself?
This year will be the Year of Lear for me. I have tickets to see Anthony Sher play the role this summer at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (after his magnificent performance as Falstaff, expectations are high) ; and it has been announced that later this year, Glenda Jackson will be coming out of retirement to tackle this Everest of Shakespearean roles. And I am certainly not missing out on that. My obsession with this most terrible and awe-inspiring of works shows no sign of diminishing.
Revisit Lear? When have I not inhabited this play?