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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear
  • Jay L. Halio (bio)
Alexander Leggatt. Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear. Second edition Manchester University Press. viii, 216. £14.99

Alexander Leggatt has written wisely and well on King Lear on a number of occasions throughout his career. His updated and enlarged edition in the useful Shakespeare in Performance series is therefore a welcome addition to the literature on the play.

In the original edition, Leggatt indicated that, unlike others in the series, he has written mainly about performances he has actually witnessed. What he offers, then, are selected first-hand accounts of King Lear as staged or filmed. His discussions chiefly focus on sets, costume designs, verse speaking, and acting rather than the texts used for the various productions he analyses, although he also offers a critique of the overall interpretation each production presents. He does not ignore stage business or music, and the cross-references and comparisons among different productions are invariably illuminating.

After an introductory chapter on 'Problems and Choices,' Leggatt discusses productions by John Gielgud and Harley Granville Barker, which of course he could not have seen himself. In the third chapter on Peter Brook and Paul Scofield's Lear he starts with productions at which he was [End Page 253] present, continuing in subsequent chapters with stagings by Robin Philips and Peter Ustinov at the Canadian Shakespeare Festival and Adrian Noble's controversial Royal Shakespeare Company's production with Michael Gambon as Lear and Antony Sher as the Fool. He then turns to the films by Grigori Kozintsev and Peter Brook, made during the same period but vastly different from each other, though the directors knew and were in touch with each other. Leggatt does not neglect television productions. His first edition ended with those by Jonathan Miller for the BBC-TV series with Michael Hordern as Lear, and Lawrence Olivier for Granada Television directed by Michael Elliott. His new edition adds a chapter on the Royal National Theatre's production with Ian Holm in the lead, directed by Richard Eyre in 1998, as it was adapted for television. He follows this chapter with one on Akira Kurosawa's film entitled Ran, a radical adaptation of Shakespeare's play in Japan.

Leggatt does not include any United States productions of King Lear, such as Morris Carnovsky's notable performance in Stratford, Connecticut in 1963. But this book does not pretend to be as comprehensive as, say, Marvin Rosenberg's The Masks of King Lear (1972). It is, as stated, selective. Or, as the general editors of the series say in their preface, each contributor to the series chooses a limited number of productions for analysis to demonstrate 'something of the range and variety of the possible interpretations of the play in hand.' In his choice of productions, Leggatt admirably satisfies that criterion.

As an example of Leggatt's comparative analyses, consider this insight contrasting the interpretations of Lear's elder daughters in the productions by Peter Brook and Michael Elliott. Leggatt notes that Elliott broke away from tradition, with 'brilliant success.' Whereas 'Normally Goneril is the brains, the executive, and Regan follows behind, lower, stupider and meaner'- the balance that Brook strove for - Elliott reversed that balance. 'Dorothy Tutin's Goneril is dour and earnest, easily angered, easily upset. Diana Rigg's Regan, by contrast, is startlingly cool, witty and ironic. Regan's tendency to follow along becomes a gift for toppling her sister.' Leggatt's volume is full of such insights. Moreover, he writes extremely well, in a graceful style devoid of any of the jargon that has infected so much recent Shakespearean criticism, especially theatrical criticism. [End Page 254]

Jay L. Halio

Jay Halio, Department of English, University of Delaware



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