King Lear summer school 2024
Mary Chater
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King Lear summer school 2024

workshops at The Playground Theatre September 9 - 14 with Bill Alexander and Michael Corbidge

Corin Redgrave on playing King Lear 19 years ago at The Albery Theatre in the West End.

My first encounter with King Lear was at Stratford more than half a lifetime ago. I was 13. My father was leading the Memorial Theatre Company, playing Shylock, Antony and Lear. My mother, also in the company, always a little in my father's shadow, played Octavia and Regan. I learned to love the sound of Shakespeare from my father. Like John Gielgud, he had an effortless command of the rhythms, cadences and stresses of blank verse. But it was my mother who taught me to love Shakespeare's stories.

It had never occurred to me to read King Lear before seeing it. I simply asked my mother to tell me the story. Her love of Shakespeare was intense, uncomplicated and traditional. For her, King Lear was melodrama, as thrilling and spine-chilling as the blood and thunder of Matheson Lang's movies or the Grand Guignol that made her and her brothers shriek with fear as children. But melodrama heightened by language such as "Out, vile jelly!" She shuddered with horror as she spoke Cornwall's words for me and for a long time afterwards it seemed to me that the point of Lear and the main reason for seeing the play was the blinding of Gloucester.

My second encounter was on Radio 3 in 2001. I had been playing Gaev in The Cherry Orchard with my sister Vanessa when the director, Cherry Cookson, suggested a broadcast of Lear. Remembering that my mother had played Regan to my father's Lear, Cherry asked my wife, Kika Markham, to play her for the broadcast.

I had been diagnosed recently with prostate cancer and had begun a course of drug therapy in preparation for six weeks of radiotherapy. Prostate cancer develops from an imbalance of testosterone, and in essence the chemical treatment, which in my case was a drug called Casodex, works by inhibiting the production of testosterone. Over time this enhances a man's secondary female characteristics. My hair, which had been slowly and steadily thinning since I left university, started to thicken. My chest hair became fine and downy instead of coarse and thick.

These feminising traits, with others that are even less welcome, are reversed when the treatment is over. But they were only beginning when we started to record Lear. I was aghast. Nothing in the literature nor in the accounts of fellow patients had prepared me for the psychological effect of these changes. I hated my drug. It was a large round white tablet, and so powerful that it seemed to kick me in the chest, five minutes after swallowing it. I had heard of patients who were still taking the drug years after the onset of the illness, and I swore to myself that I would stop taking it after the radiotherapy, whatever the consequences. (I did stop, and am still going strong.)

So at one level, and thanks to Cherry Cookson's production, I have a deeper and more personal understanding of Lear than I might have acquired at some other time. It is this: Lear has a great fear of the feminine side of his nature. At every critical juncture in the conflict with his daughters, his anxiety and dread are that he will betray his masculinity by crying, and when that happens he is devastated.

Lear: I'll tell thee - (to Goneril) life and death! I am ashamed
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus,
That these hot tears which break from me perforce
Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee!
Th' untented woundings of a father's curse
Pierce every sense about thee! - Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I'll pluck ye out
And cast you with the waters that you loose
To temper clay.

Notice also how this speech, with its violent imagery of blinding, in this case self-inflicted, anticipates the blinding of Gloucester, who is horribly punished for taking pity on Lear - pity and mercy being feminine qualities.

Lear is terrified of the mother, ie the woman, within him.

Oh, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down thou climbing sorrow!

Scholarly notes explain that according to ideas of anatomy at this time, hysterica passio begins in the womb (hysteria in Greek), and climbs, via the heart, to the patient's throat, suffocating him. Yes, but Lear's invocation also describes perfectly how I was hit in the chest by Casodex, and the psychological trauma of being overcome by the woman inside.

Lear, I decided, surrounds himself with a retinue of 100 knights in order to form a shield of masculinity around himself. Goneril instinctively recognises this.

Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires,
Men so disordered, so deboshed and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn; epicurism and lust
Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a great palace.

Both Goneril and Regan know that this protection must be torn away if they are to establish their ascendancy over their father.

Perhaps it was because of these experiences with Casodex, or maybe because of a son's inevitable wish to do things differently from his father and establish his superiority, that I found I could remember almost nothing of his performance when I came to play Lear last year at the RSC. Only the wig and the costume, the cursing of his daughters and the final entry with Cordelia in his arms.

For preparation I spent a morning with the actor Timothy West, an evening with the director Annie Castledine and a two-hour telephone conversation with Declan Donellan, whose 2002 production of Lear for the RSC Academy I had greatly admired.

With Tim, who had played a famously successful Lear with the English Touring Theatre not long before, I talked about the first scene. If one could get that right, Tim said, the rest would follow. With Annie, with whom I had often worked, I began a correspondence that continued on and off throughout rehearsal. She made me think about Lear's words as he is about to divide his kingdom. Speaking of Cordelia's suitors, Lear says:

The princes, France and Burgundy
Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn
And here are to be answered.

This began a train of thought: Cordelia's suitors have been kept waiting in Lear's court for months, perhaps years, until, like Juliet at 13, she comes of age to marry. Having done so, Lear prepares, behind the backs of everyone at court, what he believes will be a political masterstroke. To Goneril and Albany he gives the wild, inhospitable northern kingdom of Albania or Scotland. To Regan and Cornwall he gives, of course, Cornwall, and the equally impoverished land beyond the Welsh Marches - Wales. What remains is England from the Tweed to the Channel, a land not only "more opulent" than the rest but, when joined in marriage to either France or Burgundy, large and rich enough to form a power that would dominate Europe and the world.

Unfortunately, on a whim, Lear asks for an expression of love from each daughter before bestowing his gift, and Cordelia, who until now has been his indulged darling, his poppet, refuses to play the game. Cordelia's little word "nothing", from which, according to classical philosophy, there could be no consequences, sets in motion a chain of action and reaction that, like the butterfly's wings in the chaos theory, leads to Armageddon.

Another question troubled me. I knew that for most of the 18th and 19th centuries Nahum Tate's happy ending had been preferred to Shakespeare's bleakly existential vision of a universe without any benevolent creator, and a universe that had reached, what is more, an ultimate and meaningless full stop.

Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
Albany: Fall and cease!

Like most of us, if I thought about that alternative ending it was to feel vaguely superior and scornful of those generations that wanted the comfort of a happy end. Now I was not so sure. However questionable aesthetically Tate's ending was, the need for it must have sprung from a sensibility more tender by far than ours, a tenderheartedness like Dr Johnson's, who found Shakespeare's ending unbearable.

We have become so inured to images of catastrophe and suffering that they have ceased to move us as they moved our ancestors. Or so I thought. Then, as we started to rehearse, I realised that Lear himself is the victim of a mutilated sensibility. In his case, his feelings and any tenderness for others that he might have felt have been stifled by the exercise of total power. Absolute power has robbed him of the facility of imagination, the ability to see himself as others see him, or empathise with others. It has divorced him from his inner life, so that he has no soliloquy, no irony, no self-awareness. He is cruel, vain and violent, not possessed of one tragic flaw as in classical theories of tragedy, but a walking encyclopaedia of all the flaws to which human flesh is heir. And only in and through catastrophe and madness, at great cost to others and himself, does he become human.

As I embark upon the final lap of Lear at the Albery Theatre, it seems to me that I might allow myself to remember my father's performance. I might also be able to think about my mother, who died a year and a half ago, without too much sadness.
Corin died in April 2010.

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