Those tackling the ‘great’ parts have sometimes felt undermined in what they think they can bring to the performance table. But the best collaborations do not suffer so. They value the contributions of each participant and mould a commonly owned end product. Or that is what one hopes for.
Uta Hagen in Respect For Acting (still on my shelves despite having given up the profession about 28 years ago) speaks of finding aspects of an inner life that can be used, adapted or exaggerated for a character. Sometimes it is not that easy.
Simon Russell Beale, when he took on King Lear at the National under the direction of Sam Mendes, chose to focus on a particular form of illness, Lewdy Body dementia, as a key to the king’s journey into and beyond madness. He is on record as saying that research and adoption of this aspect of his performance was unusual for him.
Hagen and Russell Beale’s approaches have come together for me to suggest yet another ‘take’ on the path of monarch to homeless ranter to prisoner and death.
After the ebullience and folly of his show of public admiration, perhaps too late in his career to satisfy his waning position and fragile ego, the king worries. And one of the classic symptoms of anxiety, leading to depression, is lack of sleep. Once that worm starts turning, all sorts of other annelids are let loose.
This, I hope, is not eisegesis. There are many solid references within the text that give this conceit potential substance. There are clear links in the play’s action between Lear’s wildness and sleep deprivation. The incident when Gloucester urges the removal of the king from the shelter he has provided captures this when Kent responds,
Oppressèd nature sleeps.
This rest might yet have balm'd thy broken senses,
Which, if convenience will not allow,
Stand in hard cure. (Act Three, Scene 6)
It is one of many references that come in the action to suggest that a good night’s rest will calm the dethroned king, settle his nerves and put him back on a steadier footing.
Of course, the medical view is always important, even if it only confirms what is commonly known. One scene that often does make it to the stage is Act Four, Scene 4, in which the Doctor says, in response to Cordelia’s anxious query as to what might help ' In the restoring his (i.e.Lear's) bereavèd sense?'
Our foster-nurse of nature is repose.
The which he lacks; that to provoke in him,
Are many simples operative, whose power
Will close the eye of anguish.
This proves to be so, even if haltingly, when the Queen of France takes on the task of waking her exhausted father three scenes later. His confusion, the Doctor says, is to be expected but the hours of restful sleep are sufficient for the medic to observe that 'the great rage, You see, is kill'd in him.'
Appealing to others can sometimes strengthen an argument, as well as alerting the proponent of the view that one’s conclusions may not be as original as thought. In my researches for this post, I came across a paper by the academic Claude Fretz, whose PhD was on dreams and sleep in Shakespeare’s work.
His online article, “Either his notion weakens, or his discernings / Are lethargied”: Sleeplessness and Waking Dreams as Tragedy in Julius Caesar and King Lear, stretches the canvas further.
So to recap the arc for an actor/production team: Lear’s rash actions lead to remorse. His personality is such that his regrets haunt him to the extent of robbing him of sleep. The mounting cost of sleeplessness leads to his loosening his grip, his racing thoughts, extreme behaviour and madness. In exhaustion he collapses, coming to his right mind only after prolonged rest. Of course, that is not enough to withstand the forces against him, but those powers are outside of both his body and control.
Left brain or right brain, it is an approach that an actor and his collaborators may find enticing. But if does not appeal, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.