THEATRE / 'Madness, pain, death, torture': Max Stafford-Clark is directing Shakespeare for the first time. What took him so long, asks Georgina Brown

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According to Max Stafford-Clark, his swansong production at the Royal Court concerns the sudden and unexpected withdrawal of a central authority, followed by passionate adherence to a different war-party, followed by civil war, followed by vile behaviour including torture, followed by the collapse of society and anarchy. Typically pertinent fare, you might say, from a director and a theatre whose crusade has been to produce work that holds up a mirror to our times. Except that this is not the latest from Brenton or Barker, or even a Bond revival, but a 388-year-old tragedy by William Shakespeare.

During Stafford-Clark's 13-year tenure as artistic director, the Royal Court has staged only a smattering of classics, most memorably The Seagull, The Recruiting Officer and Three Sisters. But as his reign began with Shakespeare (Richard Eyre's Hamlet, with Jonathan Pryce), so it ends. And were it not widely known that Stafford- Clark has been casting around for his Lear for some years, his sudden settling on Tom Wilkinson (with whom he worked in 1984 on Michael Hastings' Tom and Viv about T S Eliot's marriage) and the timing of the production (Stephen Daldry assumes the Royal Court mantle in October), his decision could be judged as a canny, even cynical, move to get a big Shakespeare on his CV while he still runs his own show.

'It's disgraceful that I've got to this point in my career and never done Shakespeare,' says the 51- year-old Stafford-Clark, not quite by way of explanation. Disgraceful is a strong word; peculiar might be more appropriate. But he has a goodish excuse. New writing was always the priority when he worked at the Edinburgh Traverse, with Joint Stock and then at the Court. Hard times in the Seventies and Eighties inevitably meant staging fewer plays and it became harder and harder to find a place for a classic. And he has well-rehearsed reasons for squeezing Lear in right now: 'One, the apposite themes of the play. Two, the need for the Court to do classics occasionally. And three, because I think it's important that classics should appear in chamber theatres and not be the exclusive province of those epic theatres.' He might have added that those epic spaces impose notoriously difficult technical challenges and arguably the most successful stagings of Shakespeare's tragedies of the past decade or so - Deborah Warner's Lear for Kick Theatre, her Titus Andronicus for the RSC and the Court's Hamlet - have been intimate chamber productions.

It was the experience of working on Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer at the Court and Brome's A Jovial Crew at Stratford that made Stafford-Clark aware of how much there is to learn from the classics. 'I do think you renew your own career by acquaintance with genius. I feel terrifically energised by Lear. It's so rich, the choices are so many - it's very rewarding and for the director the job is so much easier - you are merely directing the traffic.'

For a director accustomed to being judged by his own standards and by the merits of the writers he has nurtured, the inhibiting factors were the ghosts of past productions. 'But if there was a certain way one Lear divided the kingdom, or the eyes were put out with the legs of a chair, you do instinctively want to rephrase that. We undertook not to look at any of the Lears there were, but I think that all of us have sneakily had access to Peter Brook's film (1971, with Paul Scofield - see also 'Curtain Call', below). What's impressive about it is that he creates a world of snow, northern tundra and huge firs and a society in which these deeds can take place. The same problem faces you - do you create the Elizabethan England of when it was written or some kind of primitive Stonehenge England that Shakespeare envisaged, or do you place it in the here and now?'

The here and now comes boldly to the fore when Stafford-Clark talks about Lear as a 'domestic play about a father being put in an old people's home when he doesn't want to go' or characterises Gloucester and Lear as 'a rich, company director and an ageing tycoon who suddenly, through a combination of extremely unfortunate accidents, finds himself sleeping out on the Embankment.' Yet he has resisted the temptation to stuff his cast in Armani suits and gone instead for khaki greatcoats. Inevitably, though, Lindsay Anderson's famous comment that 'At its best the Court does new plays like classics and classics like new plays' has been ringing in his ears. 'Lear seems to have come into focus for a decade or so. At the same time I hope it will seem like a new play.' So does he feel a pressure to pull a rabbit from the Stafford- Clark hat? 'No rabbits. Just a bunny or two.'

Novelties aside, his directorial approach is the same as ever - detailed psychological examination of every moment. 'The twin plough horses that pull a play are technique and honesty. For example, the moment when Lear comes in with his child in his arms needs to be approached by the actor investigating how he would feel if his child was killed in, say, a motor accident. We talked about the current drink-driving ad. Having said that, it's an imaginative experience because none of us has the experience of dead children.'

Imaginative collaboration, of a peculiarly exacting kind, has been the hallmark of Stafford-Clark's 27-year career. Actors and writers either love it or loathe it - and Stafford-Clark accordingly - but the fruits of his method have been thrillingly visible in such productions as Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good. 'If I believe in anything about theatre it is in collaboration. It's the great creative impulse. The worry about a scene is mine, the solution is often the actor's. 'A lot of the most striking decisions within scenes are taken with the actors. Tom (Wilkinson) has a great instinct for a scene. He has good taste; he doesn't do naff things, or get emotionally indulgent, which is a temptation in a play like Lear. Finding the truth of a moment is as important to him as it is to me.

'Creating the conditions for collaboration is an essential condition for any director. Theatre that seems dull to me is when one partner dominates the relationship. The tragedy of theatre is when we give up on collaboration, when writers want to direct their own work, when actors turn to the classics rather than collaborate with the writer, when actors start their own companies because they are frustrated by directors - they all seem to be cul-de-sacs to me.' (Apart from a 'guest' appearance in Les Blair's The National Health, Stafford-Clark has - wisely, by all accounts - stuck to directing.)

The upside of working with dead authors is that there is one less ego to satisfy, but Stafford- Clark misses being able to clarify the writer's precise intentions. While rehearsing The Recruiting Officer he found himself addressing Farquhar with his reflections in a fascinating correspondence, published as Letters to George. If he were to do a similar exercise with Shakespeare (Dear Bill, perhaps?) he would ask about the extraordinarily bleak images that fill the play. 'It's dealing with madness, misery, pain, death, torture . . . He must have been sitting at a deathbed to have had such thoughts.

'More important, I'd demand rewrites on some of the more impenetrable bits of Fool's speeches.' 'Rewrites?' 'Yes, and,' he adds, mischievously warming to his theme, 'the madness scenes - they read like a page of disjointed, dysfunctional writing, like a drunk, then he abandons it. There's great inconsistency here. I'd want Shakespeare to spend a few days with some schizophrenics in a mental hospital and get him to sort out the inconsistencies . . . Otherwise, I'm very pleased with this draft.'

'King Lear' is in preview at the Royal Court, London SW1 (071- 730 1745). Opens 21 January.

(Photograph omitted)