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“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”

Helen Hargest takes a look at the National Theatre's production of "King Lear", directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale, and discusses the complexity of the character of Edgar in reflection of Beale's 1993 performance of the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester.

Helen Hargest

January 2014 has seen the opening of another new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, this time at the National Theatre. Directed by Sam Mendes, Simon Russell Beale - one of our most highly regarded stage actors - plays the lead role, 21 years after he played Edgar/Poor Tom in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) 1993 production, when Robert Stephens played King Lear. This production was directed by Adrian Noble, then RSC Artistic Director, and was his second staging of this play at the RSC, having previously directed a production in 1982.

Edgar is a complex character, requiring the actor to play a number of roles in different languages and voices. Unlike his step-brother Edmund, Shakespeare does not give Edgar a strong character at the start, but as the play progresses and he assumes the various disguises, he grows in stature. Only in the final scene of the play does he reappear in his own person. In his carefully researched Introduction to the Arden third edition of King Lear, Professor Reg Foakes, discusses the differences between the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 Folio text and the difficulties this presents in discussing the play and its characters. Edgar has a larger role in the action in the Quarto text, but these passages are not present in the Folio. However, the Folio, gives the final speech of the play to Edgar, not Albany as in the Quarto, which has been sometimes been interpreted that Edgar is the new King. Yet Professor Foakes believes Edgar’s role is “more ambiguous” than just providing a moral compass for Lear and Gloucester, when both versions are looked at more carefully, and his introduction makes for interesting reading.

King Lear Malcolm Davies
"King Lear" | Malcolm Davies Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Malcolm Rutherford writing in The Financial Times (22 May 1993), said of the 1993 production; “this Lear and Robert Stephens’s Lear are magnificent.” He also praised Simon Russell Beale as “absolutely right” as Edgar, studying bedlam to go mad and weighed down with books. Later as a muddied Poor Tom, he is the only character who can hear the distant music signifying a gentler past as he crawls out of his den. Now I am looking forward to seeing Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lear in March, and the reviews are good!

This blog is dedicated to Reg Foakes, former Emeritus Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, who died at his home in Stratford over Christmas, and whose memorial service I attended on Monday 20th January. He was always a most welcome visitor to the Library and Archive here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.