CURTAIN CALLS / The men who would be King: A new series on past performances begins with the Lears of Olivier and Scofield

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The Independent Culture
The undergraduate Kenneth Tynan reviewing (for no payment) the Old Vic production of King Lear, at the New Theatre, 1946:

Olivier is our model Richard III and his Hotspur is unique. But he has no intrinsic majesty; he always fights shy of pathos; and he cannot play old men without letting his jaw sag and his eye wander archly in magpie fashion - in short without becoming funny. He gave a moderate Lear at the New, built up out of a few tremendous tantrums of impotence (notice the crazed emphases and tearing fullness of tone in his 'I will do such things, what they are, yet I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth') and an infinite run of cadenzas of his four most overworked tricks: 1) the stabbing finger; 2) the jaw and eye movement; 3) the ceaseless fits of wrestling with his cloak, like a tortoise with claustrophobia, and 4) the nervously nodding head . . . It is an absorbing display, but in no way a great Lear. Patches of it, beyond doubt, are technical triumphs - the delivery of 'Blow, winds' in jet blackness, shot only by authentic lightnings; and the riskily frail whimsy and fey lyric gaminerie with which he treated the Dover mad scene. Yet the performance told us nothing new either of Lear or of Mr Olivier: it merely introduced us to a few wholly unexpected facets of the private life of Mr Justice Shallow . . .

Kenneth Tynan's notes on Peter Brook's King Lear, with Paul Scofield, at Stratford, 1962:

A great director has scanned the text with fresh eyes and discovered a new protagonist - not the booming, righteous indignant Titan of old, but an edgy, capricious old man, intensely difficult to live with. In short, he has dared to direct King Lear from a standpoint of moral neutrality.

Flat white setting . . . against which ponderous abstract objects dangle. Everyone clad in luminous leather. Paul Scofield enters with grey crew-cut and peering gait; one notes at once the old man's trick of dwelling on unexpected vowels and lurching through phrases as if his voice were barely under rational control . . .

Spurned by his daughters, Lear loses his wits purely in order to punish them: 'I shall go mad]' is a threat, not a pathetic prediction. 'Blow, winds' is an aria of fury, the ecstasy of vengeful madness . . . Top marks for his drained, unsentimental reading of the lines about 'unaccommodated man'.

. . . And suddenly, greatness. Scofield's halting, apologetic delivery of 'I fear I am not in my perfect mind'; and the closing epiphany, wherein Lear achieves a wisdom denied him in his sanity - a Stoic determination, long in the moulding, to endure his going hence . . . This production brings me closer to Lear than I have ever been.

(Photograph omitted)

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