I suspect that at least half of the readers of this book will have picked it up either because they're acting in Lear or directing Lear. I'm scheduled to be in the former category next February.
No actor worth his salt turns down the role of Lear. But almost as soon as you accept it, you realize what a daunting challenge it poses. Thirty-three lines into the first scene (Act One, Scene One), Lear strides on stage, and in twenty lines, announces that he plans to abdicate, to divide his kingdom into thirds and hand it over to his three daughters (and their two husbands and, in anticipation, one of two suitors of the third daughter), and he challenges his daughters, without prior notice, to tell him who loves him most, all this in front of the entire court. The eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, meet the challenge. They tell Lear what he wants to hear. He visibly preens himself as they speak. His favorite daughter, the youngest, Cordelia, refuses the challenge. She loves him but won't tell him so: she certainly won't tell him she'll love him to the exclusion of her future husband.
Lear explodes and his rage fuels the rest of the play. How you play Lear in the first scene determines how you play him for the rest of the play --through rage, madness, recovery, eventual reconciliation with Cordelia, and on to Cordelia's and Lear's deaths. Play it too low, treat Lear as in any way sweet or lovable, and the play loses its bite and its message. (If it has a message! This is arguably Shakespeare's most anarchic and bleak play.) Play it at too high a peak and the play becomes monotonic, a Johnny One Note play.
Before he became an actor full time, Oliver Ford Davies served a long apprenticeship as a drama critic and it shows in this intelligent, highly insightful look at what it entails to play Shakespeare's most enigmatic and most difficult role. For the actor, it is immensely helpful following along as Davies describes preparing for, rehearsing and then performing the play. I took notes as I read the book --keyboarded them onto a Word document-- and have already, six months ahead of time, found them helpful. How demented should Lear appear at the beginning of the play? When should he begin to unravel? How does the actor accommodate the vigor of Lear at the beginning of the play (Lear still king) and his progressive deterioration later on (on the heath, the reconciliation with his daughter, etc.)? How alienated is Lear from the very start from his daughters? The questions keep multiplying. (I know that one reason I admire this book is that Davies's answers to these questions resonate with my own answers. At least so far. But there's time yet for things to change.)
I don't know the answer to all, or even many of the questions I have about Lear, both the play and the character of Lear, but I suspect I will read and reread Davies many times over the coming months.