Productions 1936 - 2007

Ian McKellen as Lear and Sylvester McCoy as The Fool in the RSC's 2007 production © RSC

A selection of RSC productions listed by year and director:

Trevor Nunn (2007)
The audience around the thrust stage of Trevor Nunn's Ruritania-inspired production could expect to get rained on during this loud and stormy production. Ian McKellen balanced Lear's contradictions, playing Lear as a kind father, violent master and vulnerable old man, and he infamously appeared naked during Lear's madness. The action took place against a tumble-down theatre auditorium with rich velvet drapes matching the ornate scarlet military uniforms of the players. In a twist on the text, the Fool (Sylvester McCoy) was hanged on-stage.
(Photograph shows Ian McKellen as Lear and Sylvester McCoy as The Fool in this production.)
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Bill Alexander (2004)
This production conjured up a cold and austere world, set sometime in the early twentieth-century, whose inhabitants were clothed in glamorous evening dresses, frock coats, wing collars and military uniforms. Corin Redgrave played a virile, vain Lear, prone to childish mood swings and younger than is usual. His first entrance was marked by an assumed and exaggerated frailty and a weak-minded smile, until he returned to his customary peremptory habits of command with a loud and complacent laugh. His doleful, elderly Fool, played by John Normington, draped his short frame in his master's cast-off coats and medals.

Adrian Noble (1993)
Bright, vibrant colours and sweeping Regency coats gave this production extra energy and panache. Lear's map was papered onto the stage floor itself. Lear, delighted with his own ingenuity, pointed this out, with complacency, to the assembled company. As the kingdom fell apart, so its paper representation ripped and fragmented. Such bold stylization marked the blinding of Gloucester, who staggered offstage as the vast globe suspended above him cracked open to release a torrent of dry sand. This planetary spilling of germens was matched by Cornwall's fatal and very bloody castration. Balancing such spectacular effects, Robert Stephens's performance stressed the vulnerability and poignant humanity of Lear.
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Nicholas Hytner (1990)
A white open-sided box provided a painfully bright, white space for the action, isolating and alienating the characters within. The box spun wildly during the violent disorientation of the storm and rotated to reveal the changing fortunes of battle in the fifth act. Family resentments and bad parenting were at the heart of this production's interpretation of character and motive. John Wood's Lear showed massive egotism and delight in manipulating those dependent upon him in the opening scene. The Fool, played by Linda Kerr Scott, was a stick-thin, androgynous creature crouching like a puppet beside Lear's tall figure.

Adrian Noble (1982)
The disintegration of all that was safe and familiar was communicated by a disturbing rush from a fairy-tale medieval setting to a one of tough modernity. As the stage emptied after Lear's abdication, dust sheets were thrown over the furniture and the set's grey walls exerted a cold oppressive atmosphere. Dressed like a music-hall clown, with miniature violin, battered bowler hat and red nose, Antony Sher's crippled Fool exchanged well-worn comic patter with his master. This Fool's diminutive stature made a powerful contrast with the massive, anguished figure of Michael Gambon's Lear. As in the 1968 production, the small vulnerable figure of Gloucester sat both within and without the battlefield, which included images from the television reports of the current war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Trevor Nunn (1976)
Donald Sinden's autocratic Lear presided over a patriarchal, late nineteenth-century kingdom with the complacent despotism of an indulged and feared father. Even before the elegant finery of court dress had yielded to a more domestic setting, family tensions had become apparent. Regan, for example, provoked her father's wrath by her nervous stammer and obvious fear of him. Lear and his Fool were of an age, both suffering from the same asthmatic cough.

Trevor Nunn (1968)
Lear's ancient Bronze Age kingdom ostentatiously displayed its power and immense wealth in sumptuous gold robes and elaborately hierarchical ritual which gradually broke down as the true nature of Lear's children was revealed. Eric Porter's white-haired and white-bearded Lear made his first entrance at the climax of a magnificent procession, led by a soldier bearing the huge sword of state. Lear was enthroned within a gold-canopied litter, on top of which a flaming crown burned. The battle in Act 5 marked the return of ritual, presented in the style of a slow-motion ballet, accompanied by deafening noise. During this sequence the frail figure of the blinded Gloucester crouched at the front of the stage, his head thrown back in a silent scream.

Peter Brook (1962)
Brook's own originality combined with the influences of Jan Kott, Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd to produce a powerful reinterpretation of the play. Brook declared that, in his bleak and austere design, he wished to give his audiences 'no aesthetic shelter'. The house-lights were brought up mercilessly as the bleeding, blinded Gloucester crawled slowly off stage, with no help or words of comfort from the indifferent servants. Brook also broke with tradition in presenting Lear's retinue of knights as aggressive and unruly: his daughters' protests at their presence were therefore justified. This was a primitive society, clothed in furs and leathers, gathered in ritualistic ceremony around the King's huge, boulder-like throne. Paul Scofield's Lear was a dangerous, tough king, with an inscrutable face, close-cropped grey hair and a terrifying voice.
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Glen Byam Shaw (1959)
Charles Laughton drew a mixed response from the critics in this production. Some reviewers felt that the actor was simply too benevolent and unthreatening a figure to encompasss the dangerous wrath of King Lear. Others, however, testified to the heart-wrenching pathos of the performance. A young Ian Holm played a boyish, sad-faced Fool.

Theodore Komisarjevsky (1936)
Randal Ayrton played Lear in this production. Its abstract, geometric set and imaginative use of lighting avoided any specific sense of period and showed the influence of Harley Granville Barker in its bold approach. There was some rearrangement of the text: Lear's knights, for example, were used as a kind of Chorus, as they repeated the Fool's songs and riddles in unison.

A full list of RSC productions with details of cast and production team can be found in the RSC Performance Database on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

Rebecca Brown and Suzanne Worthington © RSC

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