Why, then, attempt the sort of wholesale transfer of talents on view at the Grange this summer, the dictates of Covid-19 permitting? (No programming schedule these days is inviolate.) The answer, notes the venture’s director Keith Warner, whose own CV straddles cultural forms and would-be divides, has been ‘a slow train coming, as they say in America’ and is rooted in a riposte of sorts that Warner has been nursing for years. It was some while ago, he recalls, that a celebrated film director let slip a comment about opera singers not being able to act that stayed with Warner ‘and it all started bubbling from there, really. The comment was such an obvious nonsense. The best opera singers have always had an ability to act as well as sing: proper psychological acting is of course part of that set of challenges that is asked, as well, by the music.’ And so Warner set about gathering together ‘the best singing actors ever’ so as to prove his point—John Tomlinson, with whom the director has collaborated upwards of 15 times, as Lear, alongside a second operatic knight, Thomas Allen, as Gloucester; Kim Begley (a one-time company member at the RSC back in the day) as the Fool; and Susan Bullock, Emma Bell and Louise Alder as Lear’s three daughters. This is luxury casting by anyone’s definition, not least when you consider that everyone involved is working across the board for scale. ‘A lot of people asked to be in this that we didn’t use,’ says Warner in passing, well aware under ordinary circumstances that ‘John Tom’s fee alone would make something like this unreachable’.
The idea early on was for a pared-down two-hander involving Tomlinson and Begley, running for 80 minutes or so and focusing the spotlight on Lear and his mercilessly, mirthfully wise Fool: the title then mooted was Lear’s Shadow, and ‘I’ve still got the script of that,’ says Warner. Before long, the notion of a one-act, small-scale event for charity had morphed into doing the entirety of the play, shorn perhaps of 40 minutes, in an event that might even have legs. (‘Watch this space,’ says Warner of a hoped-for onward life for his Lear, the self-evident obstacle being the extensive forward scheduling of any opera singer’s career.)
The goal, of course, is not merely to refute a snarky remark about singers’ acting prowess or not. ‘We’re not just doing this from a sense of anger,’ insists Warner. ‘We’d have to be a bit more positive about it than that or we’re all doomed.’ In truth, and what surely will interest any theatre critic or practitioner in the audience most, is to discover just how the innate musicality in this of all Shakespeare plays responds to a cast used to the sorts of large-scale dramatic roles—Tomlinson’s decades-long connection to Wotan pre-eminently—which, in opera terms, are the nearest thing we have to Shakespeare. ‘These are all people who go to the theatre,’ Warner says of his ensemble (indeed, there was a visit to Ian McKellen’s recent West End Lear for those who wanted it), ‘and people who have an interest in the theatrical side of performance as equal to the musical side.’ The desired effect, thank heavens, isn’t to adopt some specious sing-song approach to the language—nor its converse, which might be what Warner characterizes as ‘Donald Wolfit-style shouting’. Having seen 20 or more Lears in his day, Warner’s intention here is to release the poetry anew. ‘Can you render its musicality in the way that you breathe through the lines so that your ear is attuned to the sound of the language? What we don’t want is everyone just being loud.’
John Tomlinson is 74, so not that far off the age of Lear as written but rarely as performed: in the theatre, by the time most actors are old enough to play Lear, they aren’t fit enough to do so—carrying the inert Cordelia towards the end is just one
Opera, April 2021