Bill Alexander's production featured Corin Redgrave as a fickle King Lear and John Normington as a mournful, elderly fool.


Bill Alexander’s production opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in June 2004 before transferring to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne, in November and the Albery Theatre, London, the following January. Using a full text, the production ran for nearly four hours.

Corin Redgrave described the exhausting experience of playing King Lear as “like you set out in a boat that’s only just seaworthy…and you are picked up in this maelstrom and dashed against the rocks and battered to smithereens and little bits of you emerge as driftwood.” Interview (Back From the Cultural Gulag) with Benedict Nightingale, The Times, 7 February 2005.

Transferring productions always brings technical and logistical challenges but the minimal storage space at the side of the Albery Theatre, combined with only 12 flying bars instead of the 45 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, made changing sets frequently impossible in London.

Playing the show as a 'solus' also meant that the actors had to perform the same play for eight performances a week, whereas normally they would act in up to three different plays when in repertoire.

Corin Redgrave as Lear with grazed right cheek wearing a military hat
Corin Redgrave as King Lear
Photo by John Haynes © RSC Browse and license our images
Balck and white headshot of an old man with long streaming hair and beard


Corin Redgrave followed in his father’s footsteps by playing King Lear at Stratford. Michael Redgrave was Lear in George Devine’s 1953 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (left), in a season when he also played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

Part of a famous acting dynasty including sisters Vanessa and Lynn, Corin was reluctant to play Lear while his father was still alive. He was 65 years old when he finally played the part, 20 years older than his father had been when he played Lear in 1953.

Re-joining the company after stints in 1972 and 1996, Corin combined his acting career with political and human rights campaigning. He was particularly drawn to what he saw as the contemporary relevance of the play “because it so vividly portrays a country divided by an almost impossible fault-line between those who have enough and those who don’t”, King Lear, RSC Online Playguide, 2004.

Some reviewers noted that Redgrave’s Lear was far from aged but instead was energetic and prone to tantrums and mood swings. Significantly, Lear’s line at the end of Act 4 where he tells Cordelia that he is “Fourscore and upward” was cut.

This was a Lear who parodied senility in the startling opening scene where he appeared as a doddery figure tapping a stick as he walked until he reached his family, when he straightened up and laughed heartily at his own joke. He also seemed to take childish pleasure in dividing up his kingdom until Cordelia spoiled the game.

When Corin Redgrave died in 2010, director Bill Alexander described his performance as King Lear as “selfless, unshowy and truthful, with a complete absence of rhetorical and theatrical tricks.” Guardian, 7 April 2010.


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)


Bare-headed older man with moustache wearing a heavy fur-trimmed coat and holding out his arms


The setting was deliberately non-specific as designer Tom Piper explained: “Bill [Alexander] felt very strongly that you can’t set this play in one particular place, it has to be an invented world, so we’re aiming to create parallel worlds: the Victorian married with strange bits of technology…I wanted to include a broken element to convey a sense of a world that could be in decay or on the edge of industrialisation”. King Lear, RSC Online Playguide, 2004.

Women wearing a fur stole addresses two women and a man seated at a long table, behind which is an illuminated map
Tom Piper's design featuring the map from which Lear divides his kingdom
Photo by John Haynes © RSC Browse and license our images
Tom Piper's design sketch for a screen on coasters
Designed by Tom Piper © RSC Browse and license our images


Critic Sheridan Morley likened Tom Piper’s bleak setting to a crumbling asylum with scaffolding and crumbling brick walls (Daily Express, 2 July 2004). Piper’s design combined with Tim Mitchell’s lighting made the most of tables, benches and chairs as well as carefully chosen props like the map screen and poppy burner as we see in the production photo above.


During rehearsals designer Tom Piper made rough sketches of his ideas for key prop items including the screen on which the map of the kingdom appears. He suggested that the screen contraption should have a gunmetal finish with castors for easy movement and the actual screen itself should be removable. Piper’s sketch for the poppy seed (see the design gallery) shows that it was to consist of a brass metal dish with a central hole, matching the brass and steel finish of the table lamps.

Below is a gallery of 'set positions' which document the staging of the set at various moments in the show: a useful tool used when re-staging the show on tour.


One key decision in casting the Fool is how old is he supposed to be? Lear’s age, or younger? David Suchet was only in his 20s when he played the Fool in Buzz Goodbody’s 1974 production at The Other Place. In this production director Bill Alexander opted for an older fool: “we’ve assumed that Lear’s been on the throne since he was 20 and that he and the Fool have grown up together. If they are contemporaries, it’s more credible that the Fool would speak so directly and grumpily.” Daniel Rosenthal, The Times, 28 June 2004.

RSC stalwart John Normington, who was only a few years older than Corin Redgrave, was cast as the Fool. He felt that you could see the bitterness in the character more because he was older and that he had a bond with Cordelia because he had been a ‘nanny’ figure as she grew up.


Dressed in an old fashioned black two-piece suit, knitted waistcoat, fur coat, red sash encrusted with medals and wearing a jester’s cap with yellow and red horns, topped by bells, Normington looked the epitome of a droll fool.

He carried a grotesque stick topped with a fool’s head wearing an identical cap. You can see from Tom Piper’s design sketch for the stick, below, the lower jaw was permanently fixed but a rod was attached to the upper jaw, and, when pulled, the head tilted back releasing the mouth, enabling the operator to use it like a ventriloquist dummy. The metal rod was attached to a leather bladder filled with rice.

Find out more about the relationship between the Fool and King Lear in Gillian Woods' article 'King Lear: madness, the fool and poor Tom' (British Library).


Bearded man, elderly man in fur-trimmed overcoat and fool with jester hat and mini-fool stickTom Piper's design sketch for the fool's stick showing component s including head, ruff, bladder and channel






Pal Aron – Edgar

Siân Brooke – Cordelia

Ruth Gemmell- Regan

David Hargreaves – Earl of Gloucester

Louis Hilyer – Earl of Kent

John Normington – Fool

Emily Raymond – Goneril

Corin Redgrave – King Lear

Matthew Rhys – Edmund

Anatol Yusef -  Duke of Cornwall




Director – Bill Alexander

Set designer - Tom Piper

Costume designer – Kandis Cook

Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell

Sound designer – David Tinson

Music – Jonathan Goldstein

Fight arranger – Malcolm Ranson


The RSC's archive is held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. You can visit the Library and Archives there to look at production related information, including photos, videos of shows and stage management documents:

Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive homepage

You can search the RSC catalogue here: 

RSC performance database 


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