Thursday, 21 May 2009

The nearest I got to seeing Ian Richardson play King Lear

In his 15 highly distinguished years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ian Richardson played a variety of roles, including Coriolanus, Richard II (alternating as Bolingbroke with Richard Pasco), Richard III, Prospero in The Tempest, Cassius in Julius Caesar, Iachimo in Cymbeline, Angelo in Measure for Measure, Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost and what is considered to be the funniest ever Frank Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the celebrated King Lear production that starred Paul Scofield, he played Edmund when the Company took the play on tour in 1964. But, he never actually got to play Lear and we can only imagine the power, depth of feeling and physical presence he would have brought to the role.

In 1999, I was privileged to see Ian perform the one-man show, The Seven Ages of Man, which ran for just under a week at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.

I'd missed his glorious years at the RSC and seeing him performing Shakespeare on stage, including a couple of Lear's speeches, was a joyful experience. For me, as well as gorging on the fabulous feast of Shakespeare he provided, the evening was memorable for another reason. When we popped in (I was there with Shirley Jacobs who, for many years, has had a webpage on Ian) to see him before the performance, he invited us out to the pub afterwards. Till that point I'd enjoyed visits to dressing rooms and this was the first of very many occasions on which I subsequently had the pleasure of spending time in Ian and his wife Maroussia's company outwith a theatre.

Sadly, Seven Ages was the nearest he got to playing the epic role. In later years he said that he no longer had the physical capacity to perform it.

But, and it was actually around the time he performed in Guildford, he did play a role - Lord Groan in the BBC production of Gormenghast - in which there was a scene in which he gave a very Lear-like and moving depiction of the Earl's descent into madness.


  1. I wasn't the hugest fan of the TV plays - partly because I knew the books so well and found the telly version of Gormenghast too bright and garish for the gloomy labyrinth described by Peake and because, having made my own (radio) version, I had very clear ideas about what the characters were like. Nevertheless, Ian Richardson was exceptional as Sepulchrave and gave one of the finest performances in the piece.

    By the way, my Lord Groan was another actor who (like Ian) had made his mark as a young Hamlet - David Warner.

  2. I suppose the tv version was 'brightened up' because it's such a dark work that if it had looked really gloomy as well, it would have had people reaching for the anti-depressants.

    Of course, David Warner was in the filmed RSC version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that also starred Ian, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Helen Mirren, Michael Jayston and Dianna Rigg - to name but a few. Not a bad little cast!

    After Ian as Sepulchrave, my favourite performance was by John Sessions as Dr Prunesquallor. Who else was in your cast?