Father role comes into play
Warren Mitchell has played Lear before, but when he heard that Jude Kelly was planning King Lear for the West Yorkshire Playhouse he wrote from Australia asking to be considered for the title role. She was more than happy to have him.
So, what does he bring to the part?
"Ideas of being a father of three children. I played the part 17 years ago and I've been a parent for 17 years since then and I know about the aggravation of being a parent and the ingratitude that hits you. And people think that Lear is so far fetched! But we keep finding, don't we, that Shakespeare, this genius, knew so much about families. The cornerstone of my life is my family but it's been hard work."
When forming her ideas for Lear Jude Kelly, the Playhouse's artistic director, recalled a discussion she had had some years ago with Cyril Cusack - was Lear a mighty oak or a willow? He has almost always been portrayed as strong and tall and dark but Kelly has not opted for the traditional interpretation.
"I was interested in the idea of Lear being vulnerable and because of that to be emotionally manipulative. Warren is able to use his massive personality, and dominating personalities can be very emotional. It's what makes Lear so extremely difficult as a father. His relationship with his daughters is partly tyrannical because he is so emotional. He feels he is right, he is allowed to be right both by his family and his subjects.
"One thought in my mind was, what happens when he loses the edge? You have a centre holding everything together by sheer personality, but then everybody goes to pieces because nobody has been allowed to practise any responsibility. "
Costumes are described as a mix of medieval and 20th century, but Kelly quickly adds that she has placed Lear and his family at the centre of a very real world. When storm and tempest blow the rain, as Warren Mitchell told me, feels very real and very wet.
Jude Kelly's audiences won't see the daughters dressed as if they are ugly sisters in an up market panto. She wants to show how they can move from pleading for their father's love, desperately rather than hypocritically, to the idea of saying, "I don't want to see him again, let's get rid of him, let's get on with our own lives!" "I have been thinking about the amount of love all the children have. How they are able to express it or not express it, because people aren't born evil. I think that Edmund's 'Why bastard? Wherefore base?' speech is central to the whole play. He's saying, 'Why can't I inherit? If I am made to feel I am the lowest of the low . . . well then I shall operate on that level!' He and all of the children claw their way back through anger."
Kelly has also examined what happens to the country when a power vacuum is created. Why does the King of France feel obliged to invade Lear's kingdom?
"Then there is the image of poverty, with Lear finding redemption among the poor and the dispossessed. That is the first time that the king is able to say anything kingly. It brings him wisdom and his stature changes. Lear was baronial and bullish and certainly not regal, but when the play ends he is wise and kingly."
West Yorks Playhouse, Leeds to October 28. Tickets: 0113 244 2111. Transfers to Hackney Empire in November.