Lear claims to be a man more sinned against than sinning. "It's a huge problem giving up your ego, your power," says director Gregory Hersov.
How much Lear is a monarch dispossessed or a control freak desperately clinging on is a matter played out, for Hersov, in the power struggles of three generations "all at odds with each other". Lear represents the oldest, with his loyal follower Kent and the Earl of Gloucester. Goneril and Regan - the daughters who flatter Lear then throw him out - lead the middle group, while the young are represented by his third child Cordelia and Gloucester's sons, the loyal Edgar and scheming, illegitimate Edmund.
"The play's not optimistic or pessimistic. It's realistic," Hersov insists. "On one hand, Shakespeare is writing about the sort of experience anyone old and near death can have. On another level, Lear has an extraordinary imagination." And a streak of absolutism that can be seen not only in his two eldest daughters, but in Cordelia too; however unfitted she is to lead an army, she insists on attempting to rescue her father.
Hersov has cast an actor around 40 years old as Lear's satirical Fool, and believes that "the Fool surfs all generations".
"The Fool's job is threatened by what Lear has done. He's the common man who speaks apparent nonsense, which is how the under-people react as the people in power tear each other apart," he says. The Fool disappears mid-action, and Hersov says Lear becomes the Fool as he gains the insight the Fool possessed. Poor Tom, the cast-out Edgar in disguise, also takes over the role of the Fool.
Both the professional Fool and the figure of Poor Tom would have been recognisable types for Shakespeare's audiences. They would also have seen the most overtly violent moment, in which Gloucester has his eyes wrenched out on stage, in a different way. "Blinding people was a common medieval punishment, so the act is not the strange sadism it's often seen as," Hersov says. "But it's the more awful as it is so con-trolled." The director must let the action in this scene develop slowly. "It musn't be played as if they know what they're going to do to him as they come onstage."
And Gloucester, unlike the king, is "an Everyman figure". "Audiences identify with his prevaricating, his bonhomie, his extra-marital affair. He's the guy you meet in a pub." This makes his later treatment and "horrible vulnerability" all the more shocking.
The characters inhabit a three-part action. "First there's power, ceremony, control, with a supposedly stable family. But it's like a pressure cooker that eventually blows up.
"Then we're half in the storm, half in the bowels of a castle. Finally, there's the journey to Dover, where the characters meet their destiny. Against the backdrop of the sea and sky, they find the elements are larger than they are, these people who in the first scene were carving up the land as in a board game."
Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre to October 23. Tickets: 0161 833 9833