It is testament to the reality of my grasp that I think it is fair to say I will never be asked to perform the mad king or direct a production of what I consider Shakespeare’s masterpiece. (Let’s leave aside the view that some people, even actors who have tackled it, think the part unplayable.)
Knowing I will only get to rage at the weather on the street in the company of the mad and bad who sometimes seem to pop up in Bethnal Green, I offer two approaches to the play that appeal to me. While I would like to claim originality for these I am sure that, like all ideas, someone has thought of them, if not having mounted such an interpretation.
Theatrical Lear: it is the end of the actor-manager era and Lear, knowing himself to be stretching audiences’ indulgence in the juvenile lead part – though this has not stopped some; Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson were still portraying Beatrice and Benedick into their seventies – decides to give over the running of his company to his daughters.
The vain ‘king’ does this expecting ripe roles, with a large retinue of supernumeraries, will still come his way. The inheritors of the artistic mantle have other ideas. The journey would entail a progression from grand gesture Acting to a naturalistic bathos.
Boss Cocky Lear: Readers from a non-Australian background might like to know that a cocky is a term for a grazier or farmer. This moved from a derogatory description of poor livers off the land – being compared to cockatoos scratching the earth to make ends meet – to a more elevated kind of pastoralist. Working the land led to the building up of pastoral companies which can amount to empires - hence the Australian government’s decision to block the sale of S. Kidman & Co to foreign buyers. The top of the pile in this organisation is the ‘boss cocky’.
The scenario takes the control of property as its key. Those who die with the most win. And here is a king giving away his land, the big house in the expectation that his family will dote on him and his jackaroos. His daughters, we quickly learn, do not agree with his summation of them:
My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know,
And in the most exact regard support
The worships of their name.
The loss of status as head of the pastoral company leads to the sibling rivalry alluded to in the opening scene and the destruction of generations of work. (Note to self: I wonder if this could be used in the current generation of Australian media empires?)
These ideas are, of course, simply two of many. Shakespeare is endlessly adaptable. I recall Eddie Marsan’s Richard III, which he titled Pell Mell, set in the 1960s gangster land of the East End. The dukes were actually pubs involved in the turf war that erupts.
As I say, each is an idea that has appealed to me. They may not be new. And each is certainly, as Tim Minchin wrote in his song, ‘not perfect; but it’s mine’.
Postscript: Some four years after writing this I watched online The King of Texas, with Patrick Stewart as John Lear. Set in the south of the USA, it told the basic boss cocky story from a pioneer's past. A trailblazer, a veteran of the Alamo, he decided to give over his ranch to his daughters. So it has been done. Though it was based on King Lear, not using the Shakespearean text. So the Aussie angle is still up for grabs.