Performing King Lear – Gielgud to Russell Beale

Jonathan Croall
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare

Performing King Lear

It may sound odd in conception, but Jonathan Croall’s study of literally dozens of performances of King Lear is fascinating.

After a brief view of historical performances, he moves into a handful of star turns before and just after the war including John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Laurence Olivier.

From then on, it feels as if every significant British stage production of the play is covered typically in two to five pages.

The modus operandum is to combine detailed research with interviews, involving directors, Lears and others who have taken less significant roles.

In this way, Croall builds up a convincing and wide-ranging depiction of pretty much every performance, with notes on design and concept almost always providing useful background.

While the concentration is particularly focused on the director and the actor playing his or her eponymous central figure, in passing one often learns a considerable amount about the Fool in particular, as well as the three daughters.

While the odd Edgar and Edmund gets a look in, for some imponderable reason, probably serendipity, playing Gloucester does not get you noticed or even named in this volume.

What remains will prove an invaluable resource for any director approaching what many contributors regard as the pick of Shakespeare’s canon, while actors cast to play King Lear can also discover exactly what their predecessors have attempted and attained.

This volume is divided up not merely chronologically but also by category so that the RSC unsurprisingly gets three chapters to itself, while the Old Vic and the National Theatre are also significant contributors, performances for the young and in the round also make appearances, along with a brief chapter featuring four of the best Lears with transatlantic connections.

The general reader will be able to wallow in a fantastic history of the production of this play through the second half of the 20th century and into the current era, noting how fashions have changed but also discovering that a play this strong can withstand almost any directorial foible.

Everybody will have their favourites but Jonathan Croall particularly dotes on Peter Brook’s iconic production starring Paul Scofield, while he has great affection for many other versions both ancient and modern.

The list of contributors includes actors who include not only the obvious superstars such as those named above plus Anthony Quayle, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins but also others less predictably cast in the role such as Kathryn Hunter, Richard Briers and Warren Mitchell.

On the directorial front, the early days feature Harley Granville Barker and Laurence Olivier while moving further up-to-date Jonathan Miller, Yukio Ninagawa, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Grandage and David Hare feature on a list that includes many addicts who have directed the play on more than one occasion.

The highest praise that one can give for Jonathan Croall’s sterling work is that anyone reading the book from cover to cover is likely to be champing at the bit for an opportunity to see King Lear on stage (or screen) on turning the final page, if not long before.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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