What playing King Lear does to an actor

The venerable director Peter Brook described the role of King Lear as “a mountain whose summit has never been reached, the way up strewn with the shattered bodies of earlier visitors”. When I remind Greg Hicks of this assessment, he first grimaces, then guffaws. Hicks is the latest to make the ascent and his mountaineering team is the Royal Shakespeare Company. If he plummets from a peak, it will be noticed.

Playing Lear does odd things to actors. Oliver Ford Davies wrote a book about the very experience of grappling with the role. Charles Laughton, Hicks has been told, “hired a taxi to take him to the Rollright Stones with two bottles of brandy, and lay there all day getting completely pissed and going through the lines on the floor, looking at the sky.” Hicks hasn’t tried either approach yet, though he does report feeling like “a pile-up on the motorway”.

“‘Are you having fun?’ someone said to me the other day. Of course it would be indulgent for me to say, ‘No, I’m suffering for my art’. That’s not the case. But I wouldn’t say I’m having fun. It’s too difficult for that.”

It is, of course, because the role is so challenging that it remains so enticing for actors. Lear’s personal journey is tough enough, travelling from anointed monarch to destitute beggar, from sanity to madness, through insight to loss and death. But his trajectory also has metaphysical significance, as Shakespeare’s great tragedy moves away from order to an apparently godless landscape in which man hunts in vain for rational purpose.

Hicks is setting out into the storm with the director David Farr, in a production that Hicks describes as “extreme, stylised and theatrical”. The two have worked together often – perhaps most successfully on Coriolanus (2002) and Tamburlaine (2005), with Hicks giving magnificently disturbing performances in the lead. Even so, they had to dare one another over a bottle of wine to take on King Lear. It is the velocity, reach and bleakness of Lear’s journey that makes it hard to harness, says Hicks. “It takes you to extremities that not many other parts do. Hamlet takes you to extremities, Coriolanus takes you to extremities. But Lear ... One of my favourite films of all times is Ran by Kurosawa. I think it captures the absolute essence of how big and expansive and universally bleak this play is.”

He adds: “Nothing is something we’ve talked about a lot,” referring to Lear’s famous quarrel with Cordelia. “The Buddhist notion is that nothing is everything and you have to lose everything – most crucially your ego – before you find something. Once the ego goes, then there’s a big hole and that’s it: that’s when you’re alive. The play does involve itself with this concept of nothing. And when Lear says, ‘Nothing will come of nothing’, he absolutely doesn’t get it, because his ego’s in the way. Maybe at the end of the play ... ”

He drifts off into thought. Hicks has a stern, craggy face that falls into deep furrows when he is thinking. His lean presence can be intense, even disturbing on stage: he looks like a man haunted by doubts. In person, however, he is friendly, open and radiates wiry energy. He has a self-deprecating sense of humour, checking himself whenever he thinks he might sound portentous, and he is given to great gusts of laughter.

People keep telling him that, at 56, he is a bit young for Lear but he points to the wonders of make-up and hopes to use his energy to suggest the vestiges of vigour in Lear. He observes that Lear kills someone right at the end of the play and has been a forceful physical presence. “We wouldn’t be interested in Lear were he not such a grand, vast human being with the capability of making terrible mistakes but also the capability of real suffering.”

Different actors find different depths in the role. Most recently Ian McKellen’s Lear had a sharp intelligence that made his struggle for comprehension all the more painful; Pete Postlethwaite conveyed his blank terror in madness; David Calder at the Globe brought out his human frailty. Hicks is finding that Lear’s outbursts and flare-ups come quite readily – “the rather more strident, cantankerous nature of the man is something I’ve done before” – but he is working on the sudden shifts into vulnerability and introspection.

“I’m looking for codas in the play, when it’s not thrown out, as if across a canyon, but it is actually placed, as if it’s inside a man’s mind. Part of the play is the externalisation of what’s going on in his head.”

He admits: “By nature I’m a bit of a perfectionist but I think I’ve just got to let go of all that, because I’ve got to dare myself to play quite a lot of this ... The element of having to stretch way beyond my normal playing range is actually quite liberating.”

Hicks’ physicality has often been a trademark element of his performances. His portrayals of Coriolanus and Tamburlaine were vividly intense and he gave a hair-raising interpretation of the ghost in the RSC’s 2004 Hamlet. He played the spirit as a wretched spectral wraith, drawing on Japanese butoh drama.

“I’m a massive believer in any physical discipline that opens you up creatively,” says Hicks. “Capoeira, yoga and butoh all fascinate me ... It’s not for everybody. For some people I’m a bit mannered. But it’s not so much a manner, it’s just the way I approach my work. Maybe as I get older and less mobile it will be less so.”

He still builds an hour of strenuous yoga into his daily routine and is a devotee of Capoeira, a dance-fight-ritual that originated with Brazilian slaves. “I’m usually to be found upside down somewhere, because in Capoeira you spend a lot of time upside down. That’s a philosophical position too: it’s about how you negotiate a world when everything’s turned topsy-turvy. It came from a hidden fighting form that the slaves developed to make it look like a dance.”

He has worked several times with Peter Hall on masked productions of classic drama – The Oresteia, Tantalus, The Bacchae – and relishes the way such rigorous styles encourage an actor to find new ways of communicating. “I always used to find mask work incredibly refreshing because you could take it off at the end of the night. You put it on: you were plugged in. You took it off: you were unplugged.”

However, he recalls that, when a film actor friend asked him why he persists with austere and physically demanding work, he couldn’t quite answer. Film work seems increasingly attractive to him. And yet here he is, playing Lear.

He cannot resist the big, classical roles, he admits, because their concerns are so fundamental: “I love these plays because they explore what you are in relationship to God, gods, fate or no fate. I’m always tussling with this privately anyway, like a lot of people are.

“Our position in relationship to why we’re here – I can’t really see a more important question.”

‘King Lear’ is at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. www.rsc.org.uk

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