“I eventually thought Lear’s journey from total power to total dependence on others reflected Richard II’s passage from kingship to common humanity. In that sense, the character is not tragic but is redeemed as a human being.”
For Lithgow, understanding the role has come from intense analysis of the text with director Daniel Sullivan. “Daniel gets us to examine every line until the sense of it emerges,” he says. “You often begin thinking a scene is one thing and realize it is something quite else.”
A recurring problem for actors is that Lear is deeply unpleasant, yet his closest associates, Kent and Gloucester, remain loyal despite everything. “I think I have come to discover more and more what is likable about the character,” Lithgow tells me. Beale disagrees. “We never ever see him as the king that Kent loves,” he said. “Quite frankly, he’s horrible, and the way he treats his eldest daughter Goneril is unspeakable.”
Not all great actors get to play Lear when they want to. Both Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino have been lined up to play the part in films that got nowhere.
And not all actors want to play Lear. One successful actor who turned down the part told me, “I fell out of love with the great classic roles because it’s like being in the world’s biggest tribute band. You are constantly compared to every previous performance. I would rather be in something new, even if it isn’t absolutely brilliant, than something that has been performed thousands of times before.”
But as McKellen tells me, “[Lear] is Shakespeare at the height of his storytelling power. There are 10 major characters whose fates are conjoined with Lear himself. This of course makes for a problem. How to gather a high-powered cast of leading players, young and old, who can measure up to the linguistic and emotional challenges of the text.
“It does feel that playing Hamlet and other Shakespearean leads is a necessary preparation for playing Lear. I had also previously played Edgar and Kent, so I knew the play is not a solo event and depends on a highly charged group of experienced actors.”
Lithgow tells me he has never played Hamlet, having turned the part down several times, but perhaps the combination of good-natured innocence and disturbing insanity which have characterized his screen roles will stand him in equally good stead. “As with Hamlet, each Lear will reflect the actor’s innate qualities and point of view,” says McKellen. It seems a safe bet that New York audiences are in for an intriguing treat this summer.