Trouble with the old folks;Reviews;Arts;Set play;Theatre

29th October 1999 at 01:00
King Lear Royal Shakespeare CompanyBarbican, then Stratford-upon-Avon Michael Maloney comes to the part of Edgar having already played Hamlet. Most actors would expect the order to be reversed and Maloney himself says that it's possible the first Edgar went on to play Hamlet. Both characters begin as untried young men with no experience of state affairs, both feign madness to cover their actions and ultimately find it in themselves to kill when they consider there is sufficient justification.

Edgar is, according to Maloney, "looking the other way" when Edmund, his illegitimate half-brother, begins to plot to turn their father, Gloucester, against him and cheat him of his inheritance. The fissures in the Gloucester family parallel those in Lear's own, but Edgar is the only one of the younger generation to show compassion for his parent, despite wrongs suffered.

In Yukio Ninagawa's production, with Nigel Hawthorne as Lear, the emphasis is on the visual, with much importance given to the simple set and the lighting design. Maloney says that rehearsals began with full set and costumes, in contrast to the English preference for up to three weeks' discussion of the text first. "It's Ninagawa's belief that we think with the whole body not just the mind." Edgar's "journey", from cosseted heir to abject beggar, forgiving son and force for good takes six or seven scenes, made easier for Maloney by the experience of the changes wrought in Hamlet. He agrees that there are suggestions of redemption in the Christian sense, but points out that there are also references to pagan and pre-Christian deities. "It's slightly confused", he says, adding that it was dangerous to be considered atheistic when the play was written and Shakespeare would have been careful to put in Christian material.

Maloney does not see Edgar as a moral force so much as a young man who goes through appalling suffering but recovers sufficiently to find it in himself to forgive his father and "cure" him. This is the word he quotes from the scene at Dover where Gloucester, blinded by Goneril and Cornwall and unaware that he is in the company of his son, is led by Edgar to believe that he has jumped off a cliff and unaccountably survived on the beach below. He wants to give his father a reason for living but admits "there is a small smidgen of toughness involved." Edgar always has the problem of making the audience believe that people who know him quite well - his own father among them - do not recognise him when he is pretending to be Poor Tom, the homeless madman. Maloney says: "I do a great deal of recognising everybody - they haven't changed. I'm covered in muck and they're not expecting to see me." He adds: "There's a whole industry designed to make Shakespeare complicated; most of it's quite logical."

Barbican: 0171 638 8891 Stratford: 01789 295623

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