George Devine’s production of ‘King Lear’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company has gone down in history as one of the landmark Shakespeare productions of the 1950s, with conservative critics of the time lambasting the production for its minimal production and electronic score. There was a desire to approach King Lear without the trappings of a conventional Shakespeare play. “Our object in this production” the programme notes claim, “has been to find a setting and costumes which would be free of historical and decorative associations so that the timeless, universal and mythical quality of the story may be clear. We have tried to present the places and the characters in a very simple and basic manner, for the play to come to life through the words and acting.”
While production designer Isamu Noguchi’s abstract sets gained significant attention, it was Roberto Gerhard’s soundtrack that added an additional level of challenge for audiences of the time. Only the second theatrical production to use electronic music in Britain (following from Gerhard’s score for Bridget Boland’s ‘The Prisoner’ the year before), the score was something radically new for British audiences unaccustomed to the sounds of musique concrète and, aside from some scattered praise, was mostly dismissed by critics as “odd” and “inappropriate”. As critic Robin Wright from Star complained: “As if this was not enough there is a music score that goes back to the Atonal School for inspiration and sound effects that ask us to believe that storms in this Never-Never Land sound exactly like jet-engines.” None-the-less, this feedback created something of a buzz, and when the play reached London in-spite of this criticism, or perhaps because of it, ‘King Lear’ completely sold out.
While Gerhard’s electronic music would become more refined as time went on, ‘King Lear’ remains an important early work of electronic music, not just for Gerhard but for British music history. Created only a few years after Boulez’s ‘Deux Études’ and Stockhausen’s ‘Studien I & II’, and three years before the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, ‘King Lear’ is an early example of a completed work which utilised the electronic manipulation of recorded sounds at Gerhard’s home studio in Cambridge. It is a record of true sound experimentation, where Gerhard tested and explored areas of sound composition largely unheard in Britain at the time, but which would go on to form a greater part of the musical landscape in the later part of the decade and into the next.