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The bigger picture

The RSC's latest Lear aims to look back at the characters' backgrounds.

Heather Neill reports

King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Stratford-upon-Avon

Bill Alexander, directing King Lear, says that he and the cast have thought about the possible back-stories of the family. Might Cordelia, the youngest and most favoured daughter, have had a different mother from her older siblings? In this production Cordelia is very young - 17 or 18 - while Goneril and Regan are in their early 30s.

Lear himself (here played by Corin Redgrave) is unusual among Shakespeare's tragic heroes, says Alexander, in that he has no soliloquies. "His life has been too public, too built on power, to have developed an inner life. When he does develop insights, he goes mad - although I think he has a potential for madness at the beginning. His being old brings up questions that were of contemporary interest, at what age the young should take over from the old, for instance." Alexander also sees a tension between the emergent individualistic society of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean era and an old-fashioned benign feudalism.

Gloucester's story runs parallel to Lear's. He is betrayed by the son he favours and treated with tenderness by the one he has abandoned. This son, Edgar, who eventually restores moral order by killing his scheming brother Edmund, is forced to flee in disguise. "He is a Hamlet or Christ-like figure," says Alexander, "a mild, inoffensive, innocent to begin with, but fear makes him adopt a role and his life depends on the one he chooses."

The Fool in this production is a contemporary of Lear. When he is addressed as "boy", this is merely a term of endearment, not to be taken literally.

Alexander says: "He is someone who knows Lear inside out. He is his daemon, in a way. In a sense he is Lear's inner life, who thinks outside the box of his vanity and self-obsession."

Lear goes mad, Gloucester is blinded. It is tempting to think that Lear achieves reason through madness and Gloucester insight when he can no longer see, but Alexander says: "I don't think Lear gains insight. He realises that Cordelia loves him and that he could have used his time better, but he dies fairly angry. And Gloucester is almost exactly the same."

In rep from June 17.

Tickets tel: 0870 609 1110

www.rsc.org.uk

Education events tel: 01789 403404

Email: info@rsc.org.uk

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