Timothy West arrives at the Covent Garden hotel looking distinguished and instantly recognizable, but curiously low key. Subdued. To be fair, he has to reserve his energy for the Old Vic, where he opens in King Lear tonight. He sparkles when you make a joke, but Shakespeare is clearly a serious business for him:
How would you define this production of what is a very well-known play?
Timothy West: I'd say it is very clear, exciting, truthful, and straightforward. It's not at all an "alternative" version of the play.
There's been some reference to the director, Stephen Unwin, having radically slashed the text.
TW: There has, but people have got the wrong end of the stick. I think he mentioned at one point that he'd made some cuts, as a sort of pre-emptive strike against anyone who railed against a missing word or paragraph, but then every director cuts Shakespeare—and other authors, for that matter. It's standard procedure, and we certainly haven't "slashed" it! Though we do play it fairly briskly—it comes in at about three and a quarter hours..
That's not everyone's idea of brisk!
TW" Perhaps not, but in relation to this play it is. And the advantage of the way this production approaches it is that the text is very clear. We have groups of schoolchildren in who expect Shakespeare to be boring and unintelligible because of the way that it's all too often taught at school, and they very quickly get gripped by the story. Although the play is a great classic, isn't it a frequent criticism of it, as a story, that Lear's decision to abdicate and split his kingdom three ways between his daughters is a very strange way for a King to act?
TW: Yes, and every production has to address that. I think Lear wants to give the best part of his Kingdom to his youngest daughter, with whom he has a loving relationship, but rather than ride over the other two women he comes up with this ridiculous game of their declaring their love. He thinks she'll make a much better and more genuine declaration of love than the other two, and when she refuses to play the game his plans are blown apart and he takes out his frustration — and awareness of how foolish he's been — on Cordelia, his youngest. It's good psychology on Shakespeare's part — we often take out our rage at our own mistakes on other people.
The great actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit famously quipped that the secret of playing King Lear was to get yourself a light Cordelia. Have you followed his advice?
TW: I haven't got a very light Cordelia, because although she isn't heavily built, she's quite tall. But she also happens to be immensely pretty and that more than makes up for the weight!
Is it easy to leave a part like Lear behind in the dressing room after the show, or do you take him home with you?
TW: I don't think it's the case that actors generally take on the personal characteristics of the characters they're playing, although when I was playing Edward VII in a television series back in the 1970s I left the set one day and went to buy some toothpaste. I stood outside the chemist's shop, and wondered why. Then I realized that, like the King would have done, I was automatically waiting for someone to open the door for me. And a little old lady, who may have been a viewer, actually did! However, there is usually a physical reaction to a major role like Lear, in that you're tired most of the day. Once you get to the theatre you're fine, and there's something curiously satisfying about dying on stage. It definitely marks the end of the character for the evening, so you can enjoy the curtain call and head off to dinner!
Timothy West can be seen in King Lear at the Old Vic Theatre from tonight (press night) until April 19. He won a Manchester Evening News award for Best Actor during the play's pre-London tour.