Shakespeare is never short of media attention, but just at the moment some of his heroes or at least his leading men, are much in the news.
This week King Lear begins its previews at the National Theatre, featuring probably our most highly-regarded stage actor, Simon Russell Beale, in the lead. Aged only 52, he’s reckoned to be rather young to play the role: it is after all only a few years since he played Hamlet. Lear claims rather confusingly to be “fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less”, but one thing’s for sure: you need to be fit to get through it. The role includes physical challenges such as the storm scene and, at the end, the need to carry the dead Cordelia onstage while uttering the line “Howl, howl, howl, howl “. It was I believe John Gielgud, who when asked if he had any tips about playing the part, suggested you should cast a small actress as Cordelia. It’s really not a part for an old man.
Nor has it always been played by them: Gielgud first played the role aged 36, and Olivier was also in his thirties, though both had cracks at the part when older as well. Michael Gambon was only 42, and Donald Sinden was about the same age as Beale, 53, when they performed the role in Stratford, though more recently Ian McKellen was 68. The most renowned performance in living memory, that made many including academics think differently about the play, was Paul Scofield, aged 40 in 1962. Jonathan Bate has written a nice piece about the part in which he quotes the great critic Kenneth Tynan “Lay him to rest, the royal Lear, with whom generations of star actors have made us reverently familiar, the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters.”. Bate comments that “Scofield’s Lear was an irascible father, a difficult old man, as much sinning as sinned against.”
All tickets that have so far been released for Beale’s performance have been sold. I’m including links to a number of articles: a stage history and preview in the Guardian, and a terrific interview with Beale in the Daily Telegraph in which he talks about the role and much besides.
Meanwhile Shakespeare’s heroes are very much to be seen in the West End at the moment: Tom Hiddleston carries on as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. Tickets are hard to come by but it’s being screened as part of National Theatre Live on 30 January so it may be possible to catch at your local cinema. And Jude Law continues as Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until 14 February. Tickets are still available. Both have received excellent reviews.
It was announced a few weeks ago that Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as Sherlock, will be appearing onstage in London this autumn as Hamlet. Details have still not been released but it’s sure to be a very hot ticket. Cumberbatch is no stranger to Shakespeare, or to theatre, and has long dreamt of playing the Danish prince.
Finally I just wanted to put in a plug for the Shakespeare’s Hamlet: text, performance and culture online course which starts this week courtesy of Futurelearn. It’s planned and delivered by the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and features many of their expert Shakespearians. I’ve only just got started, but have already enjoyed hearing and seeing the Director of the Institute, Professor Michael Dobson, talking about the various early editions of the play and look forward to much more including discussions of staging issues, with contributions from actors who have recently performed in it. There’s still time to sign up and best of all it’s completely free.