This famous production, directed by Peter Brook, opened in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, with a world tour following in 1964 and a film adaptation in 1971.

Black and white photo of a bearded Paul Scofield as King Lear holding a hand up to his face and wearing a simple crown
Paul Scofield as King Lear
Photo by Angus McBean © RSC Browse and license our images

A LANDMARK PRODUCTION

Peter Brook’s landmark production of King Lear with Paul Scofield in the title role opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in November 1962 before transferring to the Aldwych Theatre, London, in December.

It played to a sold-out Théâtre des Nations in May 1963 as part of the Paris Festival, where it was awarded the Bronze Trophy for Best All Round performance, an honour shared with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War. It also went on a world tour in 1964 (more below) as well as being adapted into a film in 1971.

Peter Brook wrote the screenplay and directed the filmed version, which included some of the actors from the original production: Paul Scofield (Lear), Alan Webb (Earl of Gloucester), Irene Worth (Goneril) and Tom Fleming (Earl of Kent). The black and white film was shot in the bare frozen landscape of a Danish winter which chimed perfectly with Brook’s bleak concept.

THE FINEST PERFORMANCE ON AN RSC STAGE?

Shortly before Paul Scofield took on the role of King Lear, he had won an Oscar for his performance as Thomas More in the Hollywood film A Man For All Seasons. For his performance as Lear he won a Variety Club Award in 1962 and today it is still considered one of the greatest ever performances of this challenging role, nicknamed ‘The Mountain’.

In a 2004 poll, RSC actors voted this as the finest performance ever on the RSC stage. Scofield’s unsentimental interpretation shunned easy sympathy as he raged against perceived wrongs. Rejected by his daughters, his journey into madness was seen by some reviewers as a threat and punishment.

His grizzled appearance and grey crew-cut hair emphasised Lear’s robust and harsh demeanour. Perhaps the ultimate accolade for Scofield’s portrayal and Brook’s production was given by Kenneth Tynan: “this production brings me closer to Lear than I have ever been, from now on, I not only know him but can place him in this harsh and unforgiving world” Observer, 11 November 1962.

DESIGNING THE SHOW

The bare sets for this production were echoed in the relatively simple but refined costumes, which seemed to belong to a remote unspecified age. In the opening court scene, Lear was dressed in a golden loose-weave cloak, studded with jewels. See Adèle Hankey's (assistant to Peter Brook) costume sketches in the design gallery. 

HOW PETER BROOK STAGED KING LEAR...

Director Peter Brook’s bleak setting of King Lear was influenced by playwrights Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht as well as contemporary events.

The production took place against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the USA and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense stand-off over nuclear weapons. Many people thought that the world would be destroyed by nuclear war.

In the programme for the 1964 world tour, Brook explained that central to his vision of the play was Lear’s speech “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” in Act 3 Scene 4, where Lear shelters from the storm in a hovel. As both director and designer Brook translated his concept into the production’s sets and costumes to create a believable society which was cruel but also sophisticated.

 

A minimalist set

The bare staging was described by the critic Kenneth Tynan as "flat white setting, combining Brecht and Oriental theatre against which ponderous abstract objects dangle. Everyone clad in luminous leather”, Observer, 11 November 1962.

Two huge white flats (scenery painted to resemble a building or wall) were positioned each side of the stage and were moved in and out to create internal and external spaces. The lighting was bright throughout, only dimmed during the storm and the blinding of Gloucester.

The sparse stage reflected the Brechtian idea of alienating the audience by stripping away the trappings of illusion. Brook’s production was also notable for its lack of background music because he didn’t want this to influence the audience’s emotional response.

 

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Act 1 Scene 1

 

This production photo shows the opening scene where King Lear asks which of his daughters loves him the most. Lear (Paul Scofield) sits on a throne on a simple rostrum, a massive sword and crown either side of him, symbolising his power.

Behind Lear is a rusty monolithic structure shaped like a prehistoric standing stone. Cordelia (Diana Rigg) is in the foreground, an isolated figure starring into the vast bare space.

 

From left to right Regan (Patience Collier), Cornwall (Tony Church), Kent (Tom Fleming) Goneril (Irene Worth, holding sphere) King Lear (Paul Scofield), Cordelia (Diana Rigg) and Albany (Peter Jeffery).

REVOLUTIONARY THEATRE?

The critic Kenneth Tynan considered Brook’s production revolutionary:

“A great director (Peter Brook) has scanned the text with eyes and discovered a new protagonist – not the booming, righteously indignant Titan of old, but an edgy, capricious old man, intensively difficult to live with…he has dared to direct King Lear…from a standpoint of moral neutrality”, Observer, 11 November 1962.

The lines between good and evil were deliberately blurred, so Goneril and Regan were no longer monsters but daughters pushed to the limit by their father’s irrational behaviour. This was a novel interpretation which has influenced subsequent productions.

In this production photo we see Goneril (Irene Worth) and the Duke of Albany (Peter Jeffrey) surveying the mess left by Lear’s unruly and destructive knights. By inserting this moment into Act 1 Scene 3, Brook allows the audience to have some sympathy for two characters often regarded as thoroughly unpleasant.

Goneril (Irene Worth) and Albany (Peter Jeffery) survey their house after it has been destroyed by Lear's followers.
Goneril (Irene Worth) and Albany (Peter Jeffrey) in their ruined house.
Photo by Angus McBean © RSC Browse and license our images
King Lear and The Comedy of Errors_ 1964_ Tour Programme_1964_c_ RSC_209327
World tour programme cover for King Lear and The Comedy of Errors, 1964.

THE WORLD TOUR

In 1964 the production toured for 16 weeks to Europe and North America as part of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary celebrations.

Together with The Comedy of Errors it visited venues behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ (countries belonging to the pre-1989 communist Soviet Union) including the 2,350-seat Lensoviet Palace of Culture in Leningrad (now St Petersburg, Russia).

In the gallery below, you will see some of the stage management prop lists for the world tour of King Lear in 1964. 

CAST AND CREATIVE TEAM

COMPANY: 1962 ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE

 

James Booth – Edmund

Tony Church – Duke of Cornwall

Patience Collier – Regan

Tom Fleming – Earl of Kent

Peter Jeffrey – Duke of Albany

Alec McCowen – Fool

Brian Murray – Edgar

Diana Rigg – Cordelia

Paul Scofield – King Lear

Clive Swift – Oswald

Alan Webb – Earl of Gloucester

Irene Worth - Goneril

 

CREATIVES

 

Director – Peter Brook

Designer - Peter Brook

Music – Guy Woolfenden

Fight arranger – John Barton

 

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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