Do not care about that deadly teasing “Is there life after death?”, A day when people are faced with the more immediate question: “Is there life after that early ‘death’ that we call retirement?”
Yes, we say to ourselves, of course there is. You can travel, paint, draw or write; garden, cook, carpentry, or learn a musical instrument. And if you’re really angry or neglecting your limitations, you can play King Lear. As I go now.
Why? I can only plead that I, shortly after bending over as the FT’s film reviewer, was robbed by an old acting yen. A sense of deprivation – so far under my cognitive radar – has clearly reached critical mass, after 46 years of envy-provoking exposure to other people acting. Also: a long career of judging without being judged, one can fall prey to illusions of invulnerability and claim. What could be healthier than playing a humble monarch?
Above all, Lear is the super-big stage role for a middle-septuagenarian staring at 80. Everything is there: anger, stupidity, passion, intelligence, stupidity, pathos, elementary vision, darkest comedy. What is not to enjoy? Especially if you’re a wannabe Wolfit, with or without sheep’s clothing.
So on a fateful day, I drew on the dotted line in my mind and now I am preparing to play Lear at the Hampton Hill Theater next month. How on earth did it originate? Well, two years ago, I met an old college friend who was a leading member of a local theater club. The plan: he would act and project manage, I would act and finance the theater rental. We called ourselves the Rhinoceros Theater Company because Ionesco’s Rhinoceros was the play we did together at Cambridge.
Quickly we got an amazing director: Fiona Smith, something forty, tough, informative and funny. Thanks for the last one or we might have drowned in Stower and urge and prosperity from the first reading. I especially enjoyed referring to Fiona to Regan, Lear’s most naughty daughter, and her ducal husband as “the Cornwalls”, as if they were characters from some TV soap opera around 800 BC. (Not without the hint of a homonymous couple currently sharing they real duke-royal soapie with us.)
For research and inspiration, I roamed my memory and my DVD collection. Who are the good or great Lears? Scofield, Stephens (Robert) and McKellen on stage are stamped in my mind, especially Scofield’s metal growl and despair-sculpted face for Peter Brook (though not, oddly enough, in his flat 1971 film version). Binge-watching screen Lears treated me to a mercurial-magisterial Michael Hordern, a furious Ian Holm, a sonorous Orson Welles, and an Olivier who turns wildly between the titanic and the troublesome. My favorite as a whole? I will take Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) – dazzling, kinetic, irresistible – now followed by Gregory Kozintsev’s moody 1971 Russian version.
Needless to say, I’m not in the above acting leagues, but it helps a new pretense for the role that King Lear perhaps the best play ever written. It also did not date. Shakespeare’s dark, cruel, consequent tragedy has as much to say for 2022 as it does until 1605: a canvas for any era of conflict and insoluble wars, of political power used and abused, of division from generation to geopolitics.
It’s also a play for the age of “What do we do with our old people?”: As modern in its dissection of a dementia-ghostly decline as Florian Zeller’s The father. It may even be a play for the era of climate change. Who else but an English playwright, soon to be a writer The storm, would be placed in the middle of his drama again?
The storms of challenge and responsibility clattered around me head to the beginning of our business. What the hell did I assume? There were a thousand rules to learn, give or take. I became more frightened when a series of top local actors stepped on the toes to join the cast. And I almost lost my voice after every exercise, from screaming at girls and storms. I started sounding like Brando’s Don Corleone who crossed paths with Clint Eastwood in his sandpaper whisper mode. “Do you feel happy, punk?” No, not much.
In desperation I googled “voice coaches”. Of this tribe of larynx caregivers – almost all women – some had Royal Shakespeare Company or National Theater experience. And so I find myself at the NT stage door, accompanied by my friendly teacher, Victoria Woodward, in the “voice studio”, a small underground room painted screaming white. I learned over weeks from the patient Victoria to breathe, hum, hiss, murmur, utter, speak, and finally wrestle with the long Shakespeare rules I could finally deliver without panting like the last horse at the St Leger .
In many ways, I felt I was reliving the necessities of my film critic career. Yes, I enjoyed the vanity of being a puppy actor manager, as I enjoyed the previous vanity of writing words that can be read all over the world. But what mattered (I learned, I hope) was not my power or ego, but art and the wonderfully diverse reactions it could provoke: the cumulative, continuous kaleidoscope of effects and effect that is film or drama or other art , and their experiences.
And there’s that other motivation I passed on. After almost half a century of dishwashing, it’s time for me to face the critics myself. Lear has a rule: “Take physics, splendor. Expose yourself to feel what the wretched feel.” Exactly, I’m here to be judged.
Hampton Hill Theater, London, 26-28 February, rhinocerotheatrecompany.co.uk