Hawthorne and Ninagawa’s Lear

In 1999, Japanese director, Yukio Ninagawa of the Sainokuni Shakespeare Company, undertook a joint production of King Lear with the RSC. Nigel Hawthorne took the part of the king, which sadly turned out to be his last major stage role. Our new exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library takes Hawthorne’s script, kindly donated to the Library by the actor, as its centre-piece.

Hawthorne as King Lear, 1999

Ninagawa had previously directed Japanese versions of Macbeth and The Tempest in the UK, and was committed to staging all 37 of Shakespeare’s dramas over 13 years at his base in north Tokyo. The first three, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Richard III, were played in Japanese to a Japanese audience. King Lear was the first to be performed in English, first in Japan, and then at the Barbican in London and at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Both Hawthorne and Michael Maloney, who played Edgar, stated that they found the rehearsals difficult. Ninagawa’s method of direction seemed more akin to a traditional dress rehearsal where the purpose was to refine physical interaction and the actors’ understanding of the set. Hawthorne recalled that directly after arriving in Japan they were shown through to the theatre and:

… there, on the stage, was one of the most chilling sights I have ever seen in my fifty years as an actor. The scenery was up, and read for the first night; it was lit; the huge stage crew was standing by … the music had been composed and recorded; the sound effects were ready; there were rehearsal clothes for us all to wear; and my wig had arrived from London. It was as though Ninagawa was saying: ‘All right. You’ve come over here to do King Lear. We’re all ready for you. Get up there and do it!”

He received no notes and had no conversations with Ninagawa regarding Lear’s character. Possibly the director’s trust in him as an actor was complete – but a very different way from working than Hawthorne was used to. Despite the difficult rehearsal period by the time they arrived in London the company were working well together and Hawthorne was proud to have been part of the ‘gloriously rich and spectacular production’.

Hawthorne's script for Act 1 Scene 1

Hawthorne’s script for Act 1 Scene 1


The production focused on the elemental nature of the play, the dark forces of nature which emerge from the void created by Lear’s misjudgements:

This is a hauntingly but savagely beautiful production. Yukio Horio’s set is dominated by a huge black wooden walkway sloping gently towards you and widening into an immense platform. At the back the walkway seems to disappear into black darkness, whence the actors emerge like mythological figures, both real and remote. All this suggests the structure of the classical Noh stage, where the curtained entrance also leads somewhere indeterminate: a primeval darkness that holds no moral secrets … this reinforces the uncomfortable Shakespearian vision of a world where you are left without the consolation or guidance of a moral order.[1]

The storm scene was particularly controversial in its handling. Boulders of various sizes were choreographed to drop on to the stage as Lear raged against the storm. Most audience members and reviewers were more concerned about the safety of the actors than the director’s vision which ‘conjures a world in which Nature’s moulds are cracked.’[2] Hawthorne himself recalled:

Bursting with curiosity, I asked how he was going to interpret the play – the storm scene, for instance, how did he visualize that? There was some to-ing and fro-ing with the interpreter before she came back with ‘Stones will fall from above.” “Stones?’, I repeated, “how big will these stones be?” “Rocks”, came back the answer… Unaware of how accurate a direction my mind was pursuing, I asked “Suppose they bounce?” Ninagawa-san smiled toothily.

Many reviewers criticised his lack of power in the storm scene but it seems a minor quibble in what was an overall great performance. Hawthorne declared that he was not a ‘boomy’ actor and that to him ‘All that ranting and raving may show you that the actor in question is jolly good at holding the stage, but you find out very little about the man he’s supposed to be playing… the king doesn’t dominate the storm; it dominates him.’

As someone who saw this production, I was deeply moved by Hawthorne’s Lear who played less on the psychotic rages and more on the frailty and vulnerability of a powerful man losing his kingdom, his family and his mind. To me he found a reality to Lear’s madness – and mentions in his essay in Players of Shakespeare how his experience with friends who suffered from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia informed his playing. It is wonderful to be able to access his script years later to read:

Hawthorne's notes on Lear's madness

Nigel Hawthorne’s notes on Lear’s ‘madness’

Nigel Hawthorne was an actor equally at home in comedy and tragedy. In 1964 Polish critic Jan Kott wrote his influential essay, “King Lear, or Endgame”, in his work Shakespeare our Contemporary which viewed Shakespeare through the filter of Beckett and emphasised the elements of grotesque tragicomedy in the play. For an actor equally at home in comedy and tragedy, Hawthorne, who could bring depth and humanity to both forms, and was ideally casting at the lost king.

Nigel Hawthorne was appointed CBE in 1987 and knighted in 1999. He died in 2001.


Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian
All quotes from Nigel Hawthorne on King Lear from Players of Shakespeare 5, ed. Robert Smallwood (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

[1] John Peter, Sunday Times, 31.10.99

[2] Michael Billington, Guardian, 30.10.99


2 thoughts on “Hawthorne and Ninagawa’s Lear

  1. Pingback: NT Live: Hamlet | K. A. Laity

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