Jonathan Kent, co-artistic director of the Almeida, is a veteran of Shakespearean productions in unexpected places. He directed Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet at the Hackney Empire and then in Richard II and Coriolanus at the converted Gainsborough film studios. The Tempest, in a gutted Almeida theatre, with a hole in the roof and enough water to drown the cast, followed. The last three productions were designed by Paul Brown, who is collaborating with Kent once again on King Lear, starring Oliver Ford Davies, at the Almeida's temporary home, a converted coach depot in King's Cross, north London.
The acting space is dauntingly wide. Not that this team is daunted. "The problem with doing epic works like this in a small space is that it works for part of the play, but there is a danger that it can reduce its mystery," says Kent. "The advantage, of course, is that the play begins as a family drama. But it was written as a Globe play - for a large stage, with little scenery and played in daylight. The reason Gloucester comes in with a torch is to let you know that it's night."
Kent won't say much about the design. "Water is inevitable; there is a storm. I love water. It's ambiguous. It dissolves straight lines." Kent's first image when he was planning the piece was "rain falling on a sofa in Lincoln's Inn Fields". He will say that the play begins in a panelled room. "People think the action starts at court, then moves outside to the heath. But it doesn't, because there's the sub-plot, so it is fractured - moving back and forth."
As to interpretation, Kent says: "I'm suspicious of anyone deciding what it's 'about' - it's open to infinite interpretation. Lear can be played in many ways. It is a gladiatorial challenge for the actor - he has to wrestle the part to the ground." Lear can be an imperious monarch or a sad old man suffering from dementia. Oliver Ford Davies's king will tend, on balance, says Kent, to the unheroic.
Kent sums up the play: "It is a sort of arrival at understanding and love, a flight towards love, through test, penance and suffering. Something comes of nothing after all, despite the line 'Nothing comes of nothing'."
heather neill Tickets: 020 7359 4404Films of King Lear available include Peter Brook's Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Paul Scofield. He has just returned to the role for a Naxos audio recording. The recent Arkangel recording has Trevor Peacock in the title role (enquiries on 01728 660114): www.arkangelshakespeare.com Also see: www.shakespeares-globe.orgglobelink and: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk