Adrian Noble's innovative production of King Lear featured Michael Gambon as the tormented king and Antony Sher as a red-nosed Fool.

Poster for King Lear, 1982, showing a caricatured seated Lear and standing Fool with a red nose and carrying a violin
Poster for Adrian Noble's 1982 production of King Lear


The finest directorial debut we have seen on the main Stratford stage since Trevor Nunn astounded us with The Revenger’s Tragedy [1966]” Michael Billington, Guardian, 30 June 1982.

Adrian Noble’s first production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was King Lear, which opened on 28 June 1982, before transferring to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne, in March 1983 and the Barbican Theatre, London, in May.

Noble’s interpretation was influenced by playwrights Edward Bond and Samuel Beckett as well as contemporary events, so the production incorporated television reports of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina.

By making substantial cuts to the text at the end of the play, Noble emphasised Lear’s dystopian and disintegrating world. Bob Crowley’s set designs also contributed to this theme of breakdown as the walls started to split apart, mirroring the splintering of Lear’s mind.

During his time as Artistic Director (1991-2002), Adrian Noble directed another production of King Lear in 1993 with Robert Stephens in the title role.


Noble’s 1982 King Lear was a visually striking show, demonstrated in this photo featuring the opening scene where King Lear (Michael Gambon) unfurls a map to explain how he intends to divide his kingdom.

A regally dressed King Lear (Michael Gambon) stands before a golden table on which a map of his kingdom is stretched out
Photo by Tom Holte Theatre Photographic Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images

Bob Crowley designed both the sets and the costume to reflect the theme of disintegration and this was particularly demonstrated in Lear’s changing costumes. In the beginning, Lear was dressed majestically in a shimmering gold and black gown but by the end of the play he was wearing hospital pyjamas. The period was non-specific but had a vaguely 19th century European look.

After Lear’s abdication, dust sheets were thrown over the furniture, which together with the grey walls of the set, created a chilly menacing atmosphere. In the early scenes, the back wall was punctuated with windows through which observers spied on the action within. As the tragedy unfolded, the walls split and opened out.

Self portrait oil painting by Antony Sher as the Fool in King Lear, 1982, posed like a clown taking a bow on stage


One of the most visually striking and innovative aspects of the production was Antony Sher’s white-faced, red-nosed clown. Wearing a ragged jacket with tails, a bowler hat and huge clown boots, he carried an instrument case containing a miniature violin, which he strummed like an ukelele. Sher painted this evocative self-portrait of himself as the Fool.

Reviewers compared Antony Sher’s portrayal to, amongst others, the famous 20th century Swiss  clown Grock as well as Charlie Chaplin, George Formby and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

This Fool was “Lear’s alter-ego, the visible mark of his insanity. His Master’s Voice as he perches on his lap like a ventriloquist’s doll, the conscience of the king.”, Michael Billington, Guardian, 30 June 1982.

Antony Sher found wearing a red nose very liberating because, like wearing a mask, it releases inhibitions. The Stage Manager noted in the rehearsal notes that it was important that the red nose was soft enough to ping back on the Fool’s nose without it hurting.

During rehearsals, Noble suggested the actors pick an animal to play to help them release the savagery and wildness of the scene on the heath. Sher became an energetic, tumbling and chattering chimpanzee, which was a breakthrough moment in developing his interpretation.

Director Noble presented an innovative opening still life, featuring the Fool and Cordelia (Alice Krige) seated on Lear’s throne, facing each other at opposite ends of a stretched lead, thus creating a dumb show of their fates. In Shakespeare's text, the Fool doesn't appear in the opening court scene, but in this production he bid Cordelia a tearful goodbye. Noble also found a novel way to dispose of the Fool: while sheltering from the storm in a hovel, the raging Lear (Michael Gambon) accidentally stabbed the Fool through a pillow case while he was sitting in a barrel.


The relationship between Antony Sher’s Fool and Michael Gambon’s tormented Lear was at the heart of the show. Despite the contrast in size, they seemed to be two sides of the same coin. At times, they resembled a music-hall double-act, with Gambon as the straight man to Sher’s comedic Fool.

Michael Gambon made his return to the company after 12 years to play Lear. Many years later, Gambon had some wry advice on how to play King Lear: “Stand centre stage, shake a bit, shout your words and don’t take your eyes off the bl**dy Fool for a moment…”. Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph, 8 December 2010.

While some reviewers felt that the Fool stole the show, it was generally agreed that Gambon cut a powerful figure and had the distinction of being possibly the first Lear to kill his own Fool.

Discover how other King Lears have tackled one of Shakespeare's hardest roles (Telegraph) and see a gallery of King Lear, past and present (Guardian).

Lear (Michael Gambon) wearing hunting clothes welcomes his red-nosed Fool (Antony Sher) in King Lear, 1982
Photo by Tom Holte Theatre Photographic Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images



Jenny Agutter – Regan

Ken Bones – King of France

Michael Gambon – King Lear

Jonathan Hyde – Edgar

Sara Kestelman - Goneril

Alice Krige - Cordelia

Pete Postlethwaite – Earl of Cornwall

Antony Sher – Fool

Malcolm Storry – Earl of Kent

David Waller – Earl of Gloucester

Clive Wood – Edmund





Director – Adrian Noble

Designer – Bob Crowley

Lighting – Brian Harris

Music and Sound– Ilona Sekacz



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