King Lear is one of William Shakespeare’s most probing tales that burrows into the psyche of its eponymous lead as he is gripped by mental illness.
Barrie Rutter OBE is set to take the lead in a new production of the play by Halifax-based theatre company Northern Broadsides.
And as a 68-year-old man with three daughters, Barrie says he relates to Lear’s character more than ever.
“We last did King Lear as a company in 1999, but at that time in the planning of it I’d asked the late Brian Glover to do it,” says Barrie.
“I was going to play the fool, shave my head and take him off as I used to do quite readily.
“But then Brian got this awful brain cancer that killed him - you don’t get another Brian Glover - and it just made sense at the time for me to do it,” he says.
“I know I was too young, but there were things in the production in which I was particularly pleased - it’s good to now be older and have another go at it.”
Renowned theatre director Jonathan Miller - the man behind the critically-acclaimed Northern Broadsides production Rutherford & Son - has created the staging for the play.
“Two years ago we did Rutherford with Jonathan Miller directing and it was a big success,” says Barrie.
“He wanted to do another play with us - he was champing at the bit to do another one, bless him.
“I suggested that we did a Shakespeare and he suggested that we did King Lear because it’s the one he knew best having done it four or five times.
“The play’s also my favourite and he told me that he thought I’d make a very good Lear, so it was a no-brainer.”
And Miller’s flair for psychological insights will add an extra dimension to Lear’s distressing mental illness.
“Lear descends into hallucinatory dementia and sheer, sheer depression - he’s never been in this situation, ever,” says Barrie.
“He certainly didn’t envisage this, and he certainly didn’t envisage his eldest daughter saying ‘no’ to what seems to him a very simple request. And the consequences are that he finds himself without anything.
“So when he sees the nearly naked man, he says ‘that’s all man is - a poor, bare, forked animal’ and through his madness he realises what he hasn’t done as a king. Similiarly Gloucester, through his blindness, sees the light of day,” he says.
“The investigation of mental disorders are really in the spotlight in a big way now.
“And with Jonathan Miller’s forensic mind observing it, he pays Shakespeare great reward for spotting it,” he says.
“Shakespeare didn’t quite know what he was spotting, but he knew what it was in terms of people’s behaviour.”
The play continues Northern Broadsides’ no-nonsense approach to theatre, with simple set design, simple costumes and good, honest Yorkshire accents.
“It’s about capturing the sort of alacrity of speech and people talking to each other - sometimes angrily, sometimes lovingly - but nevertheless, people talking to each other,” says Barrie.
“That’s something that Jonathan has really encouraged us to do so that it’s not arch or super-poetic, as it were.
“The staging is very simple indeed. Don’t forget we’re the only big touring company that goes to so many different shaped theatres, so you can’t design for every single one and we’re forever chopping and changing.
“There is a hint of costume of 1605 without a fundamental, full-blown production of 1605 - everything hints towards it because the play was written at a time when the nation was about to get rid of king and indeed kill him.”
Barrie was awarded the OBE as part of this year’s New Year’s Honours List.
“As with anything like that, you can’t really say no to them - hopefully, I’ll be able to use it for the company,” he says. “For myself, well, you dine out on it now and again, don’t you?”
“I’m hoping to take my three daughters to the palace when I get the investiture - so it will be King Lear and his three daughters in the palace with Queen Elizabeth.”
Northern Broadsides’ production of King Lear will be performed at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, from February 27 to March 7, before embarking on a 16-week national tour.