'When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools...'.
The only recorded performance during Shakespeare's lifetime was on 26th December 1606 at court. The Stationers' Register of November 26 1607 reports that King Lear was 'played before the King's Majesty at Whitehall upon S. Stephen's night at Christmas last.' It is generally thought that Richard Burbage played King Lear, John Hemmings was Gloucester, and Robert Armin played the Fool, but there is some intriguing evidence that the parts of the Fool and Cordelia may have been doubled.
There is a possibility that King Lear was rewritten by Shakespeare for a revival at The Blackfriars in 1609 and this may go some way towards explaining the differing versions of the text from the 1608 quarto to the 1623 Folio. The opportunity to present an indoor stage performance might have resulted in a reshaping of the play to make it more intimate, or Shakespeare might have used the opportunity to rework elements he was not completely satisfied with. The biggest difference is with the final speech, which in the quarto version is given to Albany.
King Lear was revived by William Davenant in 1664 and 1675, but the play fell out of favour and was re-written by Nahum Tate in 1681 with a happy ending - Cordelia marrying Edgar and Lear retaining his kingdom. Tate not only justified his rewrites, but even argued that Shakespeare's original ending was weaker than Tate's resolution - '...'tis more difficult to save than 'tis to kill...' For many years after, Tate's was the version of King Lear that was performed.
David Garrick played King Lear a number of times between 1742 and 1776, using his own version of the text which combined Shakespeare's original and Tate's revision. He was described in performance as 'little old white-haired man...with spindle shanks, a tottering gait and great shoes upon little feet...'
In 1838 William Charles Macready brought back the original Shakespeare version of the text and had the Fool played by an actress, Priscilla Horton. Macready was tormented by the part and wrote 'In reflecting on Lear I begin to apprehend I cannot make an effective character of it. I am oppressed with the magnitude of the thoughts he has to utter...'
King Lear has long been considered 'a mountain whose summit has never been reached' to be climbed by actors at the latter height of their careers - Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic in 1946, Orson Welles at the New York Civic Center in 1958, Lee J. Cobb in 1968 on Broadway, James Earl Jones at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1974, Michael Gambon at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982 directed by Adrian Noble, Brian Cox at the National Theatre in 1990, John Wood directed by Nicholas Hytner at the RSC in 1990, Robert Stephens at the RSC in 1993, Ian Holm directed by Richard Eyre in 1997 at the National Theatre, Christopher Plummer in 2004 at the Lincoln Centre, Kevin Kline at the Public Theatre in New York in 2007 and recently Ian McKellen at the RSC, the West End and Broadway. John Gielgud played King Lear a number of times: first at the age of 26 in 1931 at the Old Vic, a performance of 'Olympian grandeur' for Harley Granville-Barker in 1940, in 1950 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, his own production in 1955 with designs by Isamu Noguchi, and at 90 years old on radio in 1994.
'Shakespeare never lingers very long on the same scene, his style changes constantly...so the process of preparing Lear...was elimination - of scenic detail, costume detail, colour detail, music detail...' wrote Peter Brook of his landmark production in 1962. Brook's staging with Paul Scofield as Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company is considered one of the greatest ever performances of Shakespeare. The design attempted to create a world 'in a constant state of decomposition.' Influenced by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Japanese Noh Theatre and Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, Brook's production placed great emphasis on the existential questions in the final lines of the play delivered by Edgar.
Trevor Nunn has directed King Lear three times for the Royal Shakespeare Company - in 1968 with Eric Porter, in 1976 with Donald Sinden and in 2007 with Ian McKellen. The 1976 production was co-directed by John Barton and Barry Kyle and featured Judi Dench as Regan.
Ingmar Bergman had a cast of over 70 actors for his Dramatisha Teatern performances in Stockholm, featuring Jarl Kulle and Lena Olin.
In 1985 Deborah Warner's young and dynamic production of King Lear for Kick Theatre doubled the role of Cordelia and the Fool.
Anthony Hopkins played Lear to Bill Nighy's Edgar in David Hare's 1986 staging at the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium.
In 1990 the Rennaissance Theatre production of King Lear featured Richard Briers as the King with Emma Thompson as the Fool.
Tom Wilkinson was King Lear with Andy Serkis as the Fool in Max Stafford-Clark's 1993 Royal Court staging, which focussed on the political intrigues of the court.
Ian Holm in the 1997 National Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre was humane and naked in the storm scene. As Eyre recalled, 'he carried Cordelia's body on - and instead of putting her down before he spoke, he stood with the body in his arms and howled at Kent, Albany and Edgar. The four 'howls' emerged as an order, a command, the indictment of a father - don't be indifferent to my suffering...'
Kevin Kline played King Lear at The New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater in 2007.
Ian McKellen's 2007/2008 performances of King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company played to critical acclaim at Stratford, London's West End and on Broadway. The staging was particularly notable for the storm scene, which McKellen played in the nude.
In 2008 Pete Postlethwaite starred in King Lear for the Liverpool Everyman Theatre's contribution to the European City of Culture festivities.
Finally, there is the unknown actor whose panned performance as Lear elicited the classic review - 'He played the King as if under the temporary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace...'