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.