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A family at war

The traditional view of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragic heroes is redefined in Steven Pimlott's new production of King Lear. Heather Neill reports

King Lear Chichester Theatre (Minerva), until September 10 Tel: 01243 781312

Director Steven Pimlott says actor David Warner (a notable Hamlet 40 years ago) has the necessary natural authority, delicacy and wit to be King Lear. "He has mischievous humour and irony and he is ideal age-wise - in his middle-60s."

Lear's journey, Pimlott says, is to go from healthy maturity to dementia and old age. The journey of the play is from formal civilisation to barbarity.

Written just after the accession of James I, King Lear is satirical about contemporary politics, about divisions in the kingdom, at a time when England was first united with Scotland.

Pimlott is not convinced that "mad" is the best description for Lear's state of mind. "The whole play begs to define madness - even Lear's behaviour on Dover beach, wearing flowers in his hair, is an expression of the absurdity of the situation, born of the frustration of a king trying to raise an army, rather than madness," he says.

He does address Goneril and Regan in the mock trial on the heath as if they are there when they are not, but this can be understood as an attempt to explore the situation in a way similar to modern therapy.

The Fool feigns madness in a professional way. Edgar, Gloucester's wronged son, disguises himself as mad Tom on the heath. "The Fool's sanity is rooted in common sense. He can't deliver the extreme images and word play that Lear now needs; it is TomEdgar who can do this."

Pimlott thinks this is the reason why the Fool fades out as a character.

"In some ways, Edgar is the second lead, but he is given no introduction and then has to play a series of roles that the plot compels him to. He educates his father and then must metamorphose into an avenger, killing his brother. He ends with a stern world view." Edgar has been exposed to poverty and cruelty and has become someone who, from knowing nothing, can be a leader.

"Goneril and Regan are significantly differentiated. We tend to think of them as the Ugly Sisters, but this is not the case. Goneril is more intelligent, has self-knowledge. There is a tragic dimension in her, which is lacking in Regan who is volatile, reactive, the victim of circumstances.

Cordelia is, in a sense, responsible for the tragedy, although Shakespeare doesn't apportion blame for what happens, in that she turns a formal event (Lear's division of the kingdom) into an existential test; it is not appropriate behaviour for the occasion."

"The tragedy", says Pimlott, "is rooted in the family, in domestic quarrel - and we've all been there. Certain characters - Lear, Gloucester, Edgar - find some kind of philosophic centre, that life is about endurance, but there is consolation in human kindness. It is all we've got against terror."

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