Peter Hall's daughter is about to do King Lear for A-level, so she popped along to a rehearsal of the production - directed by her father and starring Alan Howard - which opens this Friday as part of the bold (and now sadly threatened) repertory project at London's Old Vic. The version of the play she witnessed, Hall reports with a chuckle, quite took her aback on account of certain striking deviations from the text which generations of people have studied and still study at school and have seen staged in our theatres.
Trying to evoke the bleak, cruel world of the play, how many thousands of examinees will have trotted out that dependably handy quote, " Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep", or - if asked to explain the relationship between the main and the sub-plot - have fallen back on Edgar's matchlessly concise comparison of his fate, driven into the disguise of of a madman through through the credulity of his father, with the fate of the King driven into the storm and incipient madness through the cruelty of his daughters: "He childed as I fathered." At the Old Vic, you will listen out in vain for the speeches containing these celebrated lines.
And what about the great mock-trial scene in the third act where the King transforms a shed into a phantom courtroom and, setting up a fool and a pretend bedlam beggar as judges, furiously arraigns his hallucinations of Goneril and Regan. Both as a crazed recapitulation of the dubious love trial that launches the tragedy and as a grotesque image of a world turned topsy-turvy, you might have thought it would be hard to improve on that scene for content, manner or structural placing. Yet barely a trace of it remains in this new Old Vic production.
What is going on here - textual vandalism of a deplorable, thuggish kind? No, quite the reverse, in fact. What Hall is putting on stage is a reflection not just of his own theatrical instincts, but of the most advanced academic thinking about this tragedy and about Shakespeare's texts in general. It's common knowledge that other people have adapted Lear - that, throughout the 18th century, theatrical taste succumbed to Nahum Tate's sentimental distortion, with its hollow happy ending in which Cordelia survives to marry Edgar and the King potters off to a cosy retirement with Kent and Gloucester. We are all aware, too, that 20th-century writers, such as Edward Bond and Elaine Feinstein, have reacted against the politics and the sexual politics of King Lear in their own radical re-workings of the story.
What is much less well known is the view, that has gathered strength in the last 20 years, that Shakespeare himself wrote two quite distinct versions of this colossal masterpiece. For reasons still disputed by some scholars, the Oxford Complete Works (1986) does not print the text we were all brought up on. It argues that this represents a fudging, illegitimate conflation of Shakespeare's original treatment of the Lear material (the Quarto of 1608) and his later extensive revision of it, printed in the great folio collected works of 1623. Accordingly, the Oxford edition gives you two Lears for the price of one. Most seasoned of Bardic interpreters but, at 66, a late-comer to the directing of this tragedy, Hall is using the Folio version. You could put it this way - that for his first King Lear Hall is staging Shakespeare's second thoughts on the subject.
That Shakespeare indulged in second thoughts is an idea that offends, of course, against the popular conception of his genius. Vaguely remembering Ben Jonson's grumpy comment that Shakespeare never blotted out a line ("Would he have blotted a thousand...."), we tend to think of the plays as springing from his brain on to the paper in the fully fledged, instantaneous and permanent manner of Athene bursting into verse from Zeus's skull.
But, as a thorough-going man of the theatre, Shakespeare is unlikely to have overlooked one of the cardinal facts about plays - that they are works-in-progress which, when seen on their feet as opposed to on the page, can suggest new departures. Hall has been closely associated with a number of key modern dramatists and says that, while it's true that barely a comma or a pause gets changed in a Pinter script, more common is the feverish re-writing of a Peter Shaffer. There are, he reckons, four versions of Amadeus in print, including one that is the text of the touring production in America. Lear isn't the only Shakespeare play for which there is evidence of authorial re-working. It's hard to imagine an Othello without Desdemona's Willow Song and Emilia's echoing of it at her own moment of death at the hands of her husband. But they weren't in the first printed edition. Indeed, the various improvements in the Folio text of Othello may be an example of second thoughts prompted, in the first place, by external pressures. A 1606 Act to Restrain Abuses of Players imposed a £10 fine on each profanity uttered on stage. Did the need for someone to purge the original Othello of its expensive tally of 50-odd oaths result in the author himself sitting down with his play and spotting other, more creative, opportunities for change?
Lear is, however, the only work where the alterations add up to a separate play altogether. For Peter Hall, the Folio version of the tragedy is "clearer, harder, tougher, richer and more compulsive as a piece of theatre and therefore more exciting to work on." Affecting the pace, rhythm, characterisation, tonal balance, meaning and final impression, it rethinks Lear Mark 1 in major interrelated ways.
These range from the sensitive topic of the whole political context of Cordelia's return to England from France (an invasion by French forces is revised into a non-warring rescue party) to such crucial issues as Goneril and Regan's cruelty (made more the result of provocation), the mood of Lear's reunion with his youngest daughter (made less like a sneak preview of the late romances), the identity of the character who inherits the kingdom and the frame of mind in which the hero dies - revised from the total despair of the earlier version to the tantalising ambiguity of having Lear direct our attention to Cordelia's face and leave it open as to what he himself is seeing: "Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips. / Look there, look there."
Shakespeare "realised that he had over-egged the pudding" in his first Lear, contends Hall, adding that the cuts, which get rid of static soliloquies and chorus-like conversations, produce a swifter, tonally much more unnerving play which conveys "a Sophoclean - almost a post-Beckett - recognition of the awful meaninglessness and randomness of life." Awful, of course, in two senses: hence the play's titanic grandeur.
Hall swears by the Folio, but he doesn't go as far as Patrick Tucker, one-time assistant (in the Seventies) to John Barton at the RSC, a former director of Brookside and guiding spirit behind the Original Shakespeare Company, which on Monday night mounted a one-off performance of As You Like It at the Globe. To talk to Tucker is to be swept up and carried off on a whirlwind hobby horse ride as he pours out his philosophy. This boils down to the idea that, since the Folio collection was assembled by two long-standing actors from Shakespeare's company, it is always worth experimenting even with its most seemingly error-riddled, waywardly punctuated passages, untouched by modern editors. With his actors, Tucker goes to the extreme of returning to the Elizabethan practice of handing out only personal cue-scripts. To concentrate their minds on the musical notation of their particular parts, he prefers them not to read the work as a whole.
Given that the revised version of Lear has, as Hall insists, "the real feel of an acting text", it's ironic that theatres have been slow to catch up with it or with the two-text theory and that it has met with actor-resistance. When Nicholas Hytner made a fascinating attempt to stage Lear Mark 2 at Stratford in 1990, John Wood and the rest of the cast insisted on the reinstating of the mock trial and Edgar's subsequent soliloquy. Hall laughs that he has been "very firm" about not handing back plums dropped for good dramatic reasons and says that, in an equivalent operatic case - Beethoven's Fidelio, for example, and its various earlier drafts - no one would dream of cooking up a conflation and saying "Let's put every note we like in."
On Friday we will see whether that firmness and purist rigour has resulted in a powerfully new look at Lear.
The Independent, 3.9.97.