They have to be fairly old to play the elderly king who is anxious to dispose of his estate but sees his world descend into chaos.
In the play, Lear, is 80.
But once the actors reach the required years, they’re often not physically able to take on the role, or can’t remember the many, many lines.
The world however has been waiting for Derek Jacobi’s King Lear. Now, at 72, the actor who has performed most of the classics is ready to prove he can handle the ‘Olympian’ role.
The star of the BBC’s I, Claudius series and more recently ITV’s Cadfael, admits taking on the part is a milestone, the entry point into what he calls “the fifth act” of his life.
“If you’ve got ambitions to do the classics, you jump the Hamlet hoop. And when you’re old you do the Lear hoop.
“I’ve always felt slightly young for it. But I’ve waited and now I’m only about eight years off the textual age that he is.
“I’ve always wanted to have a go, but I’ve wanted to be in the right frame of mind and confident that at least I could approximate the age.
“I know many actors play him much younger, in their 40s or 50s. I just feel that I needed to be older. Not necessarily to look older, but to feel older. To feel closer to the man.”
Jacobi’s Lear began life at the Donmar Warehouse in London and is now on a national tour, including a performance that will be simulcast live to 300 cinemas in 22 countries -- before going to Broadway next spring.
It’s a tester for Jacobi, even though he’s played practically every major classical role imaginable, from Uncle Vanya in The Cherry Orchard to Richard III, he was a founding member of the National Theatre and has performed to packed houses on Broadway -- and played leading roles for season after season with the RSC.
The working class grammar school boy who won a full state scholarship to Cambridge admits he still suffers from stage fright.
“I do get very nervous. And the pressures are much bigger now. There was a lovely actress called Dorothy Tutin and she always said that there were three categories of actor. The first one was ‘young and talented’, which is a great category to be in. You’ve got youth on your side, and you’re the rank outsider in the race. You’ve got everything to play for, nothing to lose.
“Then you become, if you’re lucky, ‘experienced and successful’. You’ve got work, you’re making a living, and you’re also getting wonderful experience.
“And then there’s the last one, which is ‘distinguished and acclaimed’. And that’s where the pressure is. Now you’re the favourite in the race, you have to win or come a good second. Now people are putting money on you to win.”
It’s a safe bet Jacobi, who appears with Gina McKee in the production, will win over the critics.
King Lear, The Theatre Royal, March 8-12.