Alexander Barnett in the Classic Theatre International production of King Lear.
King Lear is Shakespeare's greatest play and very likely the greatest work in all of literature. Its themes are of the most profound nature: redemption; self-realization; the myth of universal justice; fortuitousness in the battle between good and evil; the nature of evil.
The 80-year old Lear has been King for many decades. During his reign he has slowly and inexorably become blind to reality. He is a man of vast potential; a man of enormous passion, humanity, dignity and strength who has been inundated with lies, flattery, unchallenged obedience and false adoration.
When the play opens, Lear's psychological state is such that he is often incapable of controlling his strongest emotions. Lear has always been a man of towering passion, but had the incredible mind and will to match it. Now, however, his purpose and control have been eroded by his increasingly irrational emotional state.
In any production of King Lear, we must see the lion in Lear and his raging battle between his age and failing mind. T here must be a constant struggle between the Lear of old and the present Lear. If we don't see the towering Lear we're left with the ill, debilitated, sorrowful Lear and the conflict is gone - we never see his basic nature, which is the cause of decline. What make him so fascinating and exciting are his tremendous extremes of temperament. First and foremost he must always be a fighter and never give in to adversity. This is a man who fights an epic and magnificent struggle against overwhelming physical and emotional turmoil and whose implacable refusal to surrender makes him one of the greatest, most towering and passionate tragic characters ever created.
And the most difficult portrayal in the entire Shakespearean canon. The actor portraying Lear can't drive the torment, confusion and bewilderment that emanates from Lear – they must drive him. No amount of brilliant faking will work. I t's either real or not. We must see the torment.
Gloucester is an undiscerning, selfish, credulous and superstitious man. He is basically decent, but with a weak, impressionable nature. The portrayal must allow for catharsis is impossible. Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, is a totally trusting, inexperienced and ingenuous soul who has vast, untapped potential. He goes through an incredible process of development and maturity. Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son is willing to do anything to achieve his nefarious ends. He is not immoral, but amoral. He has the uncanny ability to unleash each woman's full sexual potential. This, plus his physical attractiveness, his feigned but convincing warmth and concern, his self-confidence and sense of humor make him an ideal, consummate lover. With the obvious obsession that Goneril and Regan have for Edmund, nothing less will suffice. He must have the charm, confidence, fearlessness, dominance and supreme ability to dupe others. Albany, Goneril's husband, is a decent, sensitive, ethical and intelligent man who prefers to avoid altercation and acrimony, but should possess both appeal and perception. Cordelia is not a sweet, frail, delicate ingénue. If she were, Lear would never favor her. She is, rather, much like Lear: resolute, dignified, proud, outspoken and fearless. This is why Lear adores her. Indeed, she must match Regan and Goneril in strength and tenacity. It must be conceivable to imagine Cordelia’s leading an army to rescue her father. The Fool should be a creature of nature. Pure instinct. Spontaneous, unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Ultimately, Lear, the 80-year old with the heart of a gladiator, should arouse in us, not tears, primarily, but awe that such a man could exist.