he lights go up on a bare Lyttleton stage. Free of props and devoid of colour, it’s an ominous forecast of the bleak wasteland in store for the misguided hero of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Kent, Gloucester and Edmund stand downstage edging into the tragedy with due sobriety. ‘The King is coming,’ warns Gloucester, then before you know it, the theatre is alive with a wild, whooping party, paper hats and plastic trumpets all round, Brian Cox’s Lear at the hub of a joyful entourage, spinning violently about on a modern day wheelchair. '
The thrill of Deborah Warner’s production is in the way it ventures into comic territory to add irony and pathos to the tragedy of Shakespeare’s most humbled of heroes. Her skill is to punctuate scenes of passion and power-mongering with deftly applied stage tricks, like visual punchlines shifting the boundary between sense and nonsense, as Lear descends from lucidity to madness. Brian Cox rises to the challenge, one minute the amiable grandad, the next the spoilt patriarch.
Having left his home town of Dundee at nineteen, after a three-year stint as stage manager at Dundee Rep, Cox headed south in the early 605 to launch an acting career that embraced work at Edinburgh‘s Royal Lyceum, London‘s Royal Court under Lindsay Anderson, and the National Theatre under Peter Hall. But throughout his career, he has kept with him a productive sense of distance from what he calls the tight-arsed traditions of the English stage. ‘I don‘t have those values,’ he says, ‘I can reinvent them. I can break the rules. My own accent isn‘t as Scottish as the accent I use for Lear. I do it deliberately, because it’s my Lear. my vision, which is based on how I viewed
As the Royal National Theatre turns up with an elemental King Lear and a totalitarian Richard 111, Mark Fisher talks to BRIAN COX about madness, old age and tight-arsed theatre. Meanwhile, Carl Honore’ (see panel) reveals that the real Richard III wasn’t quite the tyrant IAN MCKELLEN might have us believe.
things in my own childhood and subsequently. It has to have something that is non-metallic, which is the problem about standard English, a modern, upper-middle class way of doing something. The play is not about that, it’s about a man who’s talking in a way that has a reverberation that goes beyond all that. The Scots and the Welsh are very lucky, because the language and phonetics have that quality.’
Three hours after the start of the matinee performance, Cox has retreated, via the warren of corridors backstage at London’s South Bank theatre complex, to his personal dressing room. He’s hardly had time to have a shower and sign a couple of credit cards at the insistence of his agent, and he’s already talking to me in the brief hour left before returning to the stage as Buckingham in the evening run of Richard III. This is little short of staggering from a man who has just played the most demanding role in the English-speaking theatre, who is mid-way through an international tour, who not only has his first book, Salem To Moscow, newly out in the shops, but also has plans underway for a sequel, not to mention his recent leading role in Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda or his scheme to further his directorial career with a George Bernard Shaw play later this year.
But it’s the kind of workload to which the stocky 45-year-old is accustomed. The pages of Salem To Moscow - a highly readable account of his work directing students at the Moscow Arts School — are bursting with hectic schedules and impossible itineries. I put it to Cox as he sits back in the tiny cell of his dressing room. tired, but relaxed and remarkably lucid, that he must thrive on such excessive demands. ‘I suppose in a way I do,’ he muses in the same warm Dundonian tones
that make his Lear so endearing, ‘but I’m beginning to feel the pinch now. I feel it this week, because we have been playing every day for the last fortnight. We were in Broadmoor last fortnight . . .‘
Oh yes, I forgot to mention Broadmoor. The company has played Tokyo. Hamburg and Cairo, they have Leipzig, Bucharest and Edinburgh ahead of them, but a one-off performance, without lighting or props, in the infamous psychiatric prison was perhaps the most illuminating experience ofthe tour. “It was amazing,‘ says Cox. ‘It made the play so focused. because ofthe energy that is required when you’re playing in so exposed a space to that kind of audience. Their level of reality infects you. The thing about madness is that it’s very clear. All the laughter, all the response to the play was very sharp and that‘s what’s in madness. A lot ofwhat they Q say is accurate, on the nail, on the button ~ and that happens all the way through King I Lear— and its extraordinary to witness. It i was like a process ofexpiating the sins and | the pain ofthe audience. They laughed at J
8 The List 22 February — 7 March 1991.