When I approach King Lear directly after All’s Well That Ends Well, Lear takes on some of the fairy tale atmosphere of the earlier(?) play – Tolstoy’s objections, withering as long as there is any pretense of modern psychological insight, vanish under the monolithic weight of archetype. And so all of the mental playgoer post-its I carry in with me lose their glue and fall away – what gimmick will the Fool be saddled with this time (Fool as old man has proven surprisingly and distressingly durable)? And I’m relieved that the Argo recording gives us Shakespeare’s own arch and bitter waif.
I am glad to see that there is no attempt to clean up Goneril and Regan – they’re not psychologically damaged by an unloving father, not simply giving way under the stress of his unbearable retirement antics, not helplessly and tragically cursed with the old man’s stubborn and autocratic genetic predispositions. No, Jill Balcon and Margaret Rawlings are pure fairy tale nasty, evil as cleanly drawn as something from an old classic children’s book – did Rackham or Dulac ever tackle the wicked queen of Snow White? (I gave up after a rather feeble Google effort.) Likewise, Edmund is pure, swaggering rogue in Peter Orr’s reading – unrestrained and almost piratically cheerful.
Lear himself, in the person of William Devlin, takes some adjustment. There’s a lot of Greatest King Lear’s out there, if you are inclined to read old theater reviews. Gielgud, Olivier, Wolfit, Scofield – in the distant past, Ernest Milton was the greatest ever and so was Randle Ayrton. And more recently, Ians Holm and McKellen. Character actors like Michael Hordern and Trevor Peacock have lent their unique qualities, along with Alec Guinness, a testy old timer overshadowed by his plight.
William Devlin is a faded photograph in that rich gallery – despite reviving his performance numerous times (notably in 1950 at Harvard, with Thayer David as Gloucester) and on television in 1948, his star performance and brush with greatness was the Lear he created in his early twenties for the Old Vic in 1934. But though he maintained a lengthy career on stage and screen both big and small, memory legendary Lear has faded, a casualty of his lack of subsequent stardom.
In a way, he has had the last laugh. Olivier and Gielgud were both ironically too old for Lear when they finally made recordings (Olivier for TV, Gielgud for Kenneth Branagh on a commercially released radio broadcast). They are unable to give their full resources to the role and are more infirm than ancient. Paul Scofield left no less than three recordings of his Lear, for Caedmon in the 60s, a film version for Peter Brook and a final 80th birthday Lear for Naxos. And, great as Scofield is, he is also idiosyncratic, with a deftly-deployed suite of familiar mannerisms.
Devlin’s Lear for Argo is pure in a spare, classical way that nurtures the poetry of the role while supporting its heroic dimensions. At least one critic compared Devlin to something out of Blake, and nothing in the audio-only version contradicts that. He is terrible in wrath, withering in his invective, and weathered finally into quiet simplicity in his final grief. I’ve never heard “Howl” so quietly unhowled. There is a trade-off here, for those of us used to Lears crammed with character touches and vocal pyrotechnics. Devlin is working with a much more limited emotional palette than, say, Gielgud. But what he loses in range of expression, he gains in sheer power, and he can startle with unexpected moments of subtlety and beauty. It’s a magnificent performance and a rare pleasure.
As a footnote, William Devlin performed Lear one last time on TV. A brief passage from Act IV was filmed for Kenneth Clark’s 1969documentary Civilisation. Naturally, I’ve greedily watched the clip multiple times, but in a strange final irony, Kenneth Clark himself was annoyed by the performance. According to James Stourton’s book “Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation”, the presenter and art historian wasn’t happy in the first place with the idea of having his presentation interrupted by a handful of Shakespearean actors, including Devlin’s Lear and Ian Richardson as Hamlet. The idea was pushed on him by director Michael Gill, whose agenda was to open the documentary up as much as possible to avoid a lecture hall atmosphere. Clark is quoted as saying that the sequence was awkward and blamed it on the “choice of an old actor who had a great success in the part [Lear] in the 1920s and very little success since.”
Where you put your eyes, I guess.
King Lear with William Devlin, Jill Balcon, Margaret Rawlings, Prunella Scales, Donald Beves, Michael Bakewell, William Squire, Peter Orr and Frank Duncan.