17 MAY 1997, Page 44

. . . when it alteration finds

This term my sixth form at the City of London School has been doing King Lear. A-Level English Literature is done rather than read, you understand, a process resembling that to which Jerome K. Jerome's eponymous Three Men in a Boat (`to say nothing of the Dog!') subjected their recalcitrant tin of pineapple. 'We beat it out flat, we beat it back square, we bat- tered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it'.

Attempting to hearten the troops — and, I may say, with the object of relieving the existential glumness to which encounters with this unfathomably great yet unspeak- ably dismal work so often conduce — I've been reminding them of an occasion when somebody did indeed contrive to make a hole in King Lear, so satisfactorily, as it then seemed, that nobody felt like filling it up again for 150 years.

The perpetrator was Nahum Tate, poeti- cally-inclined son of an Irish clergyman named Faithful Teate (the name- change was surely forgivable), known if at all nowadays for having helped John Dryden to compose a second instalment of Absalom and Achitophel and supplied Henry Purcell with a punchy libretto for Dido and Aeneas. Described as 'an honest, quiet man, with a downcast face and some- what given to fuddling', Tate was also the author of the Christmas hymn 'While shep- herds watched their flocks by night' and of a poem in praise of tea-drinking entitled `Panacea'.

This, you might think, was quite enough for one fuddled Restoration hack, but Tate also had ambitions to succeed as a drama- tist. His was that contemporary penchant for treating Shakespeare as a species of theatrical Lego, in which the plays, after being pulled to bits, could be stuck back together in a variety of bizarre combina- tions, minus a few characters, several plot interests and many of the best lines. Dryden had produced a version of The Tempest containing a male counterpart for Miranda, named Hippolyto, `a man that hath never seen a woman', and Thomas Otway, he of Venice Preserved, had trans- ferred Romeo and Juliet to classical Rome, complete with the immortal line, 'Oh Marius, Marius, wherefore art thou Marius?' Tate, having failed to get The Sicilian Usurper, his politically libellous rewriting of Richard II, past the censors in 1680, went for broke the following year with one of the most audacious assaults ever made on the Bard's literary integrity.

The History of King Lear was composed with the genuine aim of streamlining a distinctly rickety original. 'I found the whole a heap of jewels', says Tate, `unstrung and unpolished, yet so dazzling in their disorder that I soon perceived I had seized a treasure.' And with what glee he set to work! Out went such tiresome impertinences as the Fool, along with his `Whoop Jug, I love thee' and overboard fell scenes like that supremely unmemorable opening between Kent and Gloucester, substituted far more effectively by the speech about illegitimacy made by a char- acter formerly known as Edmund but now bluntly referred to in the stage directions as `Bastard'.

The age being one of rational explana- tion in everything from chemistry to comets, how is Tate to account for Lear's rage at Cordelia's reluctance to mouth a few insincerities in return for her share of the kingdom? By making him suspect her secret love for Edgar — but watch this space! Bastard meanwhile does the bastardly bit by stitching up his brother, so that the latter may turn into a decorously blue-pencilled version of Poor Tom.

How to reunite him with Cordelia? Tate's princess was played by the stunning Elizabeth Barry, 'mistress of all the passions of the mind' and of half the male portion of the audience, later to die from the effects of being bitten by her mad lapdog. She could scarcely be expected to hang about in the green room, like Shake- I here to unwind.' speare's heroine, for nearly three acts. A little to-ing and fro-ing with Bastard is therefore devised before she sets off in dis- guise to rescue her father, accompanied for she has been nicely brought up — by her confidante Arante, Britain's answer to those Racinian creatures with names like Cephise or Albine who obligingly finish off their mistress's alexandrines with the words 'Helm, madame.'

Saved by Edgar from the clutches of 'two Ruffians', Cordelia falls happily into his arms, telling him he looks dropdead gor- geous in his Poor Tom outfit. Edgar is nothing if not practical: Look, I have flint and steel, the implements Of wandering lunatics. I'll strike a light, And make a fire beneath this shed to dry Thy storm-drenched garments.

Bastard too has found erotic solace. The impression of Tate's Lear as a soap-opera avant la lettre becomes irresistible when in Act IV Gloster (sic), having been blinded and turned loose, the curtain rises to reveal a grotto containing his villainous by-blow `amorously seated, listening to music' with the adoring Regan. Lear meanwhile is recovering his wits with Cordelia's aid, but just when we imagine that Shakespeare might at last be allowed to have his say, Tate's unquenchable passion for EU-style `harmonisation' takes over in earnest. The ugly sisters symmetrically poison each other at an offstage banquet — 'Thou drankst thy bane amidst thy revelling bowls' — Albany bounces in, like the US Cavalry, to rescue Cordelia, promptly handed to Edgar by her father, far enough into rehab., as to give her the crown as well. As for the sightless Gloster, Lear assures him, 'Thou hast business yet for life', as if it were a simple matter of Care in the Community and selling the Big Issue.

Everybody liked The History of King Lear so much that it held the stage until 1823. Matthew Warchus, the brilliant young director who has just given us his slimmed- down Hamlet at Stratford, has proposed a 10-year moratorium on theatrical Shake- speare. Perhaps he could be persuaded to make an exception for Nahum Tate — not the genuine article, more than somewhat given to fuddling, but, after his unique fashion, sublime.

Jonathan Keates