Richard Eyre’s last Lear was in 1997, the year he received his knighthood, in the National’s most intimate theatre, the Dorfman (then called the Cottesloe). Ian Holm was a brilliant, twitching, neurotically strutting, pomp-stripped king, and caused a sensation as the first Lear to rip off his clothes to become the “thing itself ”, like poor naked Tom, during the storm.
The director recalls his late sister, Georgina, asking at the time: “‘Why did you put Dad on the stage?’ I told her that I had never imagined that for a moment and she said, ‘Well, you got him to behave exactly like our father’. I could only infer from that that all fathers are like King Lear at some stage.”
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When we first spoke, in 2001, the director eloquently expressed the ways in which Holm played Lear like their father: “…the irascibility, the extremes, the sense in which he would test the love of his children, that refusal to concede. One of the reasons I was fascinated by the play is that it takes the family as a microcosm of the state, and of course all parents have the potential for tyranny.”
Looking back, Eyre says that while “Ian, and Paul Scofield [who starred in a 1962 RSC production], are great, great Lears, I don’t think I’ll ever see a better Lear than Tony’s [Anthony Hopkins].
He, like Hopkins, sees the play as being all about family. When I ask him if he has ever been tempted to abuse his power (another underlying narrative of King Lear), say when he ran the National Theatre or in his role as a director, he brings it back to his family. “I don’t think I’ve ever abused power in an institutional fashion. However, it’s very easy to abuse power in a family situation, and I can think of occasions when Lucy, my daughter, was growing up when I might have shouted at her in a way that you think is legitimate because you are a parent, but you would never shout that way at anybody else. That is the agony of being a parent, and being a child, which we all face.”
See the new teaser trailer for King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins
I ask him whether, like Lear, he has ever feared madness himself – particularly in the context of his mother Minna’s descent into dementia. He says not.
In the past five years, Eyre has directed two films, two operas and several plays. We speak the day after his Long Day’s Journey into Night opens in New York; he is also promoting King Lear, rehearsing his new play – an adaptation of the novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, which opens in June – and anticipating the summer release of a film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act, starring Emma Thompson, which he directed.
Does he ever take a break? “I do fear not working. You ask, ‘Do I fear madness?’ – what I fear is the void.”
King Lear starring Anthony Hopkins is at 9.30pm on BBC2 on Bank Holiday Monday 28th May