SIL Book of the Week : An occasional series

This week: The selected writings of Jonathan Miller, 1954–2016

Received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week,  this selection of essays, lectures and interviews spans seven decades of the varied (an understatement) life and career of celebrated intellectual Jonathan Miller. The title of the volume, One Thing and Another, encapsulates precisely the range of subjects to which Miller contributes and upon which he reflects – that is, anything which interests him!

NPG x27384; Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook; Jonathan Miller; Dudley Moore; Alan Bennett) by Lewis MorleyThe ultimate polymath, Dr Sir Jonathan Miller studied natural sciences and medicine at Cambridge, qualifying and working as a medical doctor. At the same time, he became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, the University’s amateur theatrical club which initiated many a famous career in comedy and acting – including his own. Miller made his name as a member of the quartet who brought us the inimitable satire show, Beyond the Fringe, starring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as well, of course, as Miller himself. He then took up a position at the BBC, where, apparently, he picked up the art of directing ‘as he went along’. Here he produced and directed a wide variety of programmes  from plays and adaptations to various documentaries including series on the human body, the human mind, madness and the complexities of language.

Of particular interest to Shakespeare students is his role as director of six plays in the BBC Television Shakespeare series in the early 1980s. He also worked in theatre, producing and directing Shakespeare on the stage. Of this he observes, ‘It’s extremely unlikely that Monteverdi [Miller is also an opera enthusiast] and Shakespeare ever in their wildest dreams imagined that their works would be bequeathed to others who were so fundamentally and recognizably different from them and from their audiences. It’s very hard to put ourselves back into the imagination of people in the sixteenth or seventeenth century and conceive the notion of posterity as visualised by them’. But Miller has apparently coped with this difficulty admirably: His most recent directing role, in 2015 and at the age of 82, was Northern Broadsides critically acclaimed production of King Lear.

He also pursued his love of opera by directing productions for Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, this immediately following the holding of a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London. Later he studied neuropsychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before taking up another research fellowship in the same subject at the University of Sussex. And so on.

And all these fascinating facets of his life are represented in this book: his thoughts on theatre, opera, comedy, philosophy, atheism and scientific debate; his undoubted intellect and his rigorous scholarship accompanied by his acerbic wit and humour. There is something here for everyone, for all of us, like Miller himself, must be interested in ‘one thing and another’. In a library devoted to Renaissance studies,  Jonathan Miller is surely the epitome of the ‘Renaissance man’.

Dr Jill Francis

Jonathan Miller, One Thing and Another: Selected writings, 1954-2016, edited by Ian Greaves. (Oberon, 2017). PN2598.M7.

Available in the Shakespeare Institute Library now.


The Art of Deception: Kurosawa’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well’


This morning on Twitter a stunning poster of Ran reminded me of my awe and wonder for Kurosawa’s films. Yes, I’ve blogged about Kurosawa before but it struck me that Throne of Blood and Ran get much attention while the marvellous The Bad Sleep Well is less known and less praised. Here’s a short piece about that film which contains moments of pure cinematic genius.


In his book Theatre of Chaos William Demastes states that ‘Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs the problems of our time… its philosophical dimensions are as rich and culturally moveable as its political dimensions.’

Kurosawa sets his version of Hamlet in contemporary post-war Japan. During the 20th century Japan transformed from a feudal empire to an industrial super state, and the transition was not a smooth one. When Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War the emperor declared, “We must endure the unendurable”, and for the first time in their history Japan became an occupied country. Traditional feudal values were repressed by the American occupiers, there were political and economic reforms, democratic institutions were set up. A whole new way of life had to be adopted – some threw themselves into it with a self-destructive force, others, like Kurosawa, approached it carefully, adapted to it and made it their own. He was given the chance to make films about subjects that had never been tackled before – one of them being the social chaos of the post war years. Wartime austerity had been replaced by indulgence and excess. He said:

I wanted to make a film of some social significance. At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc, on a public level is the worst crime that there is. These people hide behind the façade of some great organisation like a company or corporation and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do. Exposing them I thought of as a socially significant act – and so I started the film.


Kurosawa’s resulting screenplay examines the effect that political decisions can have on the personal, and by association, national psyche – how will the human soul be affected? The Bad Sleep Well shows us a complete warping of traditional values – a sickness brought about by corruption within new and established institutions disturbed by the war. Speaking later he said: ‘Maybe it was because I came from the old samurai class, but even back then I remember hating anything crooked or underhanded’.

Important traditional qualities such as loyalty and honour are manipulated for self-interest. Employees are encouraged to commit suicide in order to save the skins of their superiors. Self-assertion was seen as immoral in pre-war days and self-sacrifice as a sensible course in life. In Kurosawa’s film the old levels of Japanese society, their ways and values are still in place but have been perverted for diabolical ends and a hidden agenda. Nobility and virtue no longer apply in a capitalist environment. Beneath the veneer of duty, ritual and obedience to authority is a wealth of personal trauma. The ‘Hamlet’ character, played by Toshiro Mifune (and by association Kurosawa himself), wishes to explode the facade, and takes on the important responsibility of trying to expose these men who hide behind the mask of respectability and act like gangsters.

the-bad-sleep-well-noirAppropriately, The Bad Sleep Well is photographed like a film noir. This was a style born in America by directors who fled Germany at the start of the Second World War. They used expressionistic techniques, chiaroscuro, angled camera positions, and disturbing cityscapes. This genre of film told stories of people who found it difficult and sometimes impossible to wade through the dark underbelly of their country – characters that are severely tested in their adjustment to civilian life after the war – having fought for justice, they find only corruption, and the fates against them in their own city streets. The noir style fits Kurosawa’s subject. Beautifully photographed in ravishing black and white widescreen, the film flows between the clinical corporate world of offices and meetings to the darkened suburban streets where ersatz ghosts and would-be-killers lurk in shadows, only to disappear in car headlights moments later.


Japan, like Denmark, is a prison. This feeling of entrapment is cleverly created with Kurosawa’s visual style. The majority of his shots in this film have a symmetrical composition. Characters stand on opposite sides of the screen reflecting each other and framing the action. The actors are often blocked to form converging lines or triangles so that the viewer subliminally feels as though he is being fenced in or pushed into a corner.

The settings also emphasize this eerie claustrophobic aspect with long corridors lit by strips of light, darkened streets lined with fences that block off sight-lines: a police office with horizontal blinds lit from outside creates bars of light across the walls; home interiors of plain walls with bars of wood again creating the idea of being closed in.


This film is a myriad of mousetraps, as Nishi tries to expose his father’s murderers and bring down the company. The centre-piece to this film is a breath-taking and extraordinary scene which occurs directly after Nishi has saved Wada, another company pawn, from committing suicide. Wada, who is believed dead by everyone, is forced by Nishi to watch his own funeral. This is Nishi’s incredibly cruel ‘play within the play’ which Wada must endure in order to spur the revenge plot. (The scene is first up in this trailer for the film).

It is a scene that reflects the concerns of the entire film. It is about truth and the juxtaposition of conflicting ideologies, and is completely cinematic – what we see and hear are completely at odds and so the horror of it is accentuated.

Nishi and Wada are in the constricted environment of the car, the windscreen itself acts like a cinema screen, and Nishi produces his own soundtrack – a recording of the corporate villains of the company Dairyu in a nightclub. So, we are watching a film within a film. The soundtrack is completely at odds with what we are watching, thus making it more grotesque. A grieving widow and child unknowingly receive the would-be murderers of the man they have lost. The very traditional funeral mount and the national costumes of the women, place them in traditional Japan – a funeral service for a man who believes in the validity of old values – the belief of which has ironically resulted in his attempted suicide and presumed death. The men from Dairyu, their dark suits representing the corporate world, appear reverential and humble, they pray – their deception in the outside world goes unnoticed. But we hear, with Wada, from their morbid drive-in, the truth. The westernisation of Japan and the corporate identity that the executives represent is echoed in the swinging western music of the night club, we see them bow in reverence but hear them laugh about the man’s death and talk about celebrating his demise with drink and women.

There is a great sense of corruption here, of guilt and the gullibility of innocence and, of course, of betrayal. In Hamlet, those in power act above the law – as in Macbeth they show a face that hides a much darker self.

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Although he is alive, Wada is the ghost at his own funeral. He says, ‘after this I cannot go on living’. The rights have been performed and he is dead in the eyes of the world. Nishi leaves him no option but to join him in his revenge plot. But his role is that of a ghost, a visitor from the grave exposing the crime committed against him. Like Banquo’s ghost he repeatedly appears to his murderer and drives him out of his mind. His would-be murderer is also one of the men indirectly responsible for the death of Nishi’s father. He is left a gibbering wreck and in his madness, acknowledging his guilt, can only utter ‘Forgive me Furuya’.

Sons seeking revenge, corruption, murder for personal gain, madness, appearance versus reality, ghost and mousetraps – they are all here, joined by the pervading theme of deception. Kurosawa succeeds in exposing the corrupt interlocking of business and government in post-war Japan. Nishi’s attempt to impose justice on a world in which justice is absent is futile. As in Ran the chaos that ensues leads to madness and loss.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Many of Kurosawa’s film are available on Box of Broadcasts including:


Throne of Blood

See the Bfi’s page on Kurosawa vs Shakespeare

Howl, howl, howl, howl! Lear is mad again…

2016 sees a glut of King Lear productions, which our current exhibition in the SIL explores. LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, Sara Westh explores Lear’s enduring fascination.

The by now quite venerable Arden Shakespeare Lear characterises its subject as “a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of his imagination.”

Whether a fan of the play or not one cannot deny the influence of Lear as an iconic moment of narrative and drama in our age, something that Kott’s praise of it as “above all others the Shakespearean play of our time” seems to bear out. Of course, the date of publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary suggests that rather than being the sigil of one age in particular, Lear has, as the rest of the Shakespeare gang, shown an aptitude for eternity. Maybe Lear speaks to us because the divide between age and youth is always instantly recognisable as well as being infinitely adaptable; the issues that prompted Kott to claim a singularly powerful status for the mad king in the mad world, cut off from human kindness, suffering in a hell as much of his own making as created by the people closest to him, are issues of humanity, and they are no less poignant today.

As we once again embrace the heath for its familiar barrenness, the inevitability of Lear seems closer than ever before. Our world is growing old, the tempests that rage just outside the castle walls are all too real, and the twitterings of our Fool companion are a constant buzz in the back of our minds. When everything appears to spiral out of our control in spite of well-laid plans and best intentions, we all howl with Lear. Unlike the king, however, we know how the story ends.

Turning to the play itself, to the king that staggers across the stage rather than through our minds, its enduring influence can be traced in part to its history, and in part to the fascination it engenders among the audience. There is, apparently, something at once deeply satisfying and unsettling about the gradual destruction of the elderly, followed by the revival (and un-blinding) of everyone involved through the magic of applause. Freud and Lacan can probably offer very incisive analyses of the play, in particular its use of sharp objects, and Barthes and Derrida can beyond doubt oblige us with new worlds of verbal slippage and dead gods from within the lines. And while all of this forms part of the reason why Lear is mad again this year, there is almost certainly more to it than penetration, castration, repetition, and perpetuation in our communal cultural memory.

The reviews of this year’s offerings help us suck the marrow from the bone:

“Through Warrington, Lear’s madness is made at one with the storm […]. He emerges from it transformed: fragile, human, as authentic as Cordelia, whose love – and whose death – he movingly shares.”

“Pennington’s performance charts Lear’s course from overconfident folly to humbled self-knowledge via the storms of madness with moving craft, culminating in scenes of extraordinary loving tenderness, first with blinded Gloucester (Pip Donaghy) and then, heart-wrenchingly, with the hanged Cordelia (Beth Cooke).”

Michael Pennington is portraying Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, while Don Warrington takes the king upon him at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Judging from the publicity photos, both productions visually evoke an era past, with costumes suggesting the 1930’s-40’s, and both show their protagonists descending into white shirts as they descend into madness.

Clare Brennan reviewed the two productions side by side for the Guardian and according to her description the two lead actors are comparably magnificent; both combine the air of death that clings to Lear’s shoulders like tar with tender moments of excruciating pain. Both portrayals she describes as “moving”.

Apart from the immediate meaning of emotions that transport us beyond the hum-drum every-day, and maybe even deposit us in that rare embrace of catharsis where our own problems fade into insignificance for a few, brief moments, until the lights go up again, and we once more set out across the heaths we spend our lives cultivating, there is a deeper sense of movement at play. Maybe the “moving” centre of Lear is what makes its particular calamity of so long life; the savage joy of witnessing inescapable suffering, sorrow of a magnitude that goes far beyond what any one of us can reasonably pretend to fathom, and yet witnessed from such a privileged point of view that every moment of the old man’s downfall is available to us in the full technicolour of our own senses.

Glenda Jackson will be portraying Lear at the Old Vic later this year, as will Antony Sher at the RSC. The Lears of 2016, then, are so far looking like an at least approximately representative model of the population. The only unifying feature is age: this year’s Lear must, apparently, be old. Perhaps the traditions that surround this theatrical sacrifice demand a certain stiffness in the joints and toughness in the sinews; an old actor’s offering, much as Hamlet belongs to the young, provided that Uncle Monty’s view of the world in Withnail and I is to be credited.

If the 2016 Lear productions are anything to go by, this is the age of the mad king, of the player who only too late realises that he is the star of his own tragedy. And as such it is, of course, the story of everyone alive. It is, unfortunately, a story we love to watch – in others as in ourselves. And we never start clapping until the lights go down.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA Shakespeare Institute Library


Brennan, Clare. “King Lear Review – Two Lears Acting up a Storm”. The Guardian. 10.04.2016. web 01.08.2016. <;.

Foakes, R.A. “Introduction” King Lear by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare 3rd series. gen. eds. R. Proudfoot, A. Thompson, D.S. Kastan. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1997.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. London: Routledge, 1988.



Aebischer, Pascale, Edward J. Esche, and Nigel Wheale (eds). Remaking Shakespeare: Performance Across Media, Genres, and cultures.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003.

Burt, Richard (ed). Shakespeare after Mass Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.

Henderson, Diana E. Collaborations with the Past : Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media. Ithaca; London: Cornell UP, 2006

Holland, Peter (ed). Shakespeare Survey 62: Close Encounters with Shakespeare’s Text. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

Joughin, John J. Philosophical Shakespeares. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kelley, Philippa. The King and I. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Lusardi, James and June Schlueter. Reading Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear. London, New Jersey, Ontario: U of Delaware P: Associated UP’s, 1991.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1966

Massai, Sonia. World-wide Shakespeares – Local Appropriations in Film and Performance. Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Muir, Kenneth (ed). King Lear – Critical Essays. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

— and Stanley Wells (eds). Aspects of King Lear. London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: CUP, 1982.

Ogden, James and Arthur H. Scouten (eds). Lear from Study to Stage – Essays in Criticism. Madison; Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP’s, 1997.

Proudfoot, Richard (ed). Shakespeare : Text, Stage and Canon. London : Arden Shakespeare, 2001.

Sun, Emily. Succeeding King Lear. New York: Fordham UP, 2010.

Wagner, Matthew D. Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

“I’m a wild one…”: the wild men of Shakespeare

‘What is man,

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more’

On inquiring what it means to be human, Hamlet finds himself questioning the difference between man and animal, and if indeed they are all that different. In his plays Shakespeare presents us with a number of characters with a folkloric origin which Lear calls ‘unaccomodated man’ – the wild man – illustrated here from 2 contemporary ballads.

SantaWildman (1) Wild man elizabethanThe wild man can be traced back to both classical mythology and European folklore. Romulus who was reared by a she-wolf, Hercules dressed in a lion skin and carrying a club, satyrs, fauns, and other such characters lived happily with nature. Another example is the Roman god Sylvanus – a tutelary deity of woods and fields. As protector of forests (sylvestris deus), he especially presided over plantations and delighted in trees growing wild. He is also described as a god watching over the fields and husbandmen, protecting in particular the boundaries between wild and cultivated land.

2Alternatively, the wild man was a symbol that primitive existence was truly bestial and that society, through collective effort and human reason was the only way of improving the quality of life. In Europe during the middle ages there were many rumours of forest dwelling wild folk living in a state of nature. These savages were feared as the enemy of man and were associated with demons of the earth and ghosts of the underworld. Another association was with elves and fairies of country lore, impish, not always kindly and connected with vegetation and fertility.

In Book 1 of Spenser’s the Faerie Queene we meet a ‘salvage nation’ who live at ease with nature. They recognize the holiness of Una and protect her even if they cant understand her notion of true faith. In Book 3 conversely, there is a goat-herding tribe who are remarkable for their unrestrained sexuality. With bagpipes, dances and garlands they celebrate the acquisition of the strumpet Hellenore as their Maylady – which is what they call her. We are reminded here of a passage from Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses (1583) raging against the May Day Celebrations:

‘then they have their Hobby-horses, dragons, and other Antiques, together with their baudie pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil’s dance withal, then marche these heathen company towards the Church or churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumpts dancing, their bells jingling, their hankerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen.’

Caliban is described in the first folio list of characters as ‘salvage and deformed’. Edmund Malone described his costuming as ‘a large bear skin, or the skin of some other animal; and he is usually represented with long shaggy hair.’ His fishiness could be attributed to his smell considering he spends time among the rocky shores, rather than to his appearance. Trinculo calls him a moon-calf. This refers to one of many items of lore connected with the moon. The moon-calf was a false conception, a foetus imperfectly formed due to the influence of the moon. Caliban’s deformity, however, derives from a different area of lore. In the days of witchcraft it was supposed that devils called incubi and succubi roamed the earth with the express purpose of tempting people to abandon their purity of life. Most records of these creatures came from monasteries and convents and were a convenient way of covering up the sexual activity of supposedly celibate orders. Badly deformed children were suspected of having such undesirable parentage. In this instance we know that Caliban’s mother was a witch and that he was ‘got by the devil himself’.

Caliban...Cambion_or_MooncalfHowever, Caliban’s intelligence and emotional development is far above the usual literary and mythological breed of savage man. When he is denied the pleasure of Miranda’s bed and forced to serve under Prospero’s will he expresses a very human bitterness:

When thou cam’st first,

Thou strok’st me, and made much of me

And then I lov’d thee,

And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle.


Renaissance literature provides us with many examples of the civilised man turned savage, whether due to banishment or exile, or due to betrayal in love or friendship.

Pericles, The Globe, 2015

Pericles, The Globe, 2015

In Pericles the hero displays the characteristics of the wild man. Believing both his wife and daughter to be dead, he swears never to wash his face, nor cut his hairs. And when his ship reaches Mytilene we are told in Act 5 Scene 1 that  ‘for this three month he hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief.’ Having found incest, fraud and jealously among men, having lost those he held most dear, and seeing nature indifferent to justice and misery, he becomes less than human in his suffering. In his reunion with Marina we are reminded of Edgar’s words at his own reconciliation with his despairing father ‘Twixt two extremes of passion , joy and grief’ they meet. Through the extreme depth of suffering that we see physically manifested, a reaction of extreme cathartic joy is reached.

Edgar victorianEdgar embodies many of the characteristics identified as that of the wild man but he is unlike any other. He dramatizes a vision of man brought near to beast – appropriate in a play full of animal imagery and crowded with comparisons of man to animal. As Bedlam beggar, he will mortify his flesh, elf all his hair in knots, grime his face with filth and take the ‘basest and most poorest shape/That ever penury, in contempt of man, /Brought near to beast.’ Through his encounter with Poor Tom, Lear reaches an awareness of the nature of humanity. If man is inherently different from animal, the distinction between the two lies not with physical or material qualities, but with rational and spiritual values – duty, affection, kindness, pity, fortitude and forgiveness. As critic G M Princiss stated:

In enacting the role of Poor Tom, Edgar embodies the lowest pitch of human existence. However, through his various impersonations we watch him re-establish order and hierarchy among humanity. Starting with the bare, forked animal, ‘the thing itself’, Edgar by turns becomes peasant, soldier, knight incognito and perhaps even king. He stands for the great range of human potential in behaviour and class and at the same time reminds us of the narrow distance between noblemen and beggar, accommodated man and bare forked animal. He portrays not only man’s closeness to the beast but his distance from it. And in emphasizing man’s common humanity, Edgar is perhaps the most powerful, poignant and comprehensive presentation of the savage man in literature. In the words of Beckett’s tramps, ‘He’s all humanity’.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

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