He wanted to be a rabbi, now he's playing King Lear

The RSC’s Greg Hicks says he had a calling - not to the theatre, but to religion. What changed?

By Judi Herman, March 25, 2010
Greg Hicks, whose parents were founder members of Leicester’s Progressive Congregation.

Greg Hicks, whose parents were founder members of Leicester’s Progressive Congregation.

'I used to be a little bit disarmed when people said: 'Oh you're playing Lear - you're far too young.' But now I'm much more cavalier about it," declares Greg Hicks. "I'll give what I know about life and whatever abilities I have as an actor a whirl." Judging by the reviews he has had for his King Lear in the current Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon, the strategy is paying dividends.

"Anyway, the part wasn't written for an old man," he continues. "It was written for a 38-year-old."

Hicks's saturnine good looks are if anything enhanced now that he has grown a beard for the role. Grey runs through it so his playing age is hardly 38. He decides he will not tell how old he really is but will admit to being fiftysomething. And he concedes that Lear is generally played as an octogenarian. "I am young to plumb the depths of an 80-year-old's suffering" he says. It turns out, though, that he has found one role model for Lear who is a good deal older than 80.

"My father will be 100 by the time we hit New York in eighteen months' time, he's nearly ninety-nine now," he tells me. "And there's a tenacious quality about my father that is very suitable for Lear. He's survived many things in his life. He was a flight engineer in the Lancaster Squadron during the Second World War. He's seen a few things and his ability to bounce back after major obstacles is quite extraordinary. And I think Lear has that tenacious and fierce ability to suffer."

But that is where the similarities end, for unlike Lear's children, Hicks enjoys a close relationship with his father and even worked with him on his stall in Leicester market selling ladies' underwear.

His late mother, Beryl, was born in Rutland and his father was an East Ender. "When he came out of the air force at the end of the war he and his mate wanted to go into business and they stuck a pin in a map at St Pancras railway station and they said the nearest city to where the pin was, that's where they'd go. There's no other reason why my father landed up in Leicester. It was an arbitrary pin prick. And then he met my mum."

His mother converted to Judaism, which as he says was a huge thing for a rural Rutlander to do at that time. "I think she was quite amazing," he says proudly. "In a metropolis it would have been slightly more palatable but even then it would have been difficult, but out in the countryside in the late 1940s it was an extremely difficult thing to do".

His father and mother were founder members of Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation and his mother established the Ladies Guild, so the community became an important part of family life. "I was very aware of it during my childhood obviously because it was very much a part of my day-to-day landscape." He says they were regular synagogue goers and then corrects himself: "Well, when I say synagogue, it was actually a group in a Friends' Meeting House that we used to rent," he laughs.

Before Hicks trained be an actor he considered the rabbinate so seriously that he had a place at rabbinical college. "I thought I had a calling," he confides. "I nearly went down that road, I was very close to it. But for my own reasons I drifted away. Well, I didn't drift." He pauses, choosing his words carefully. "I think I stepped out of the frame quite consciously. But in a way I can't deny that whatever I experienced as a growing child under the umbrella of Liberal Judaism probably influences whatever I do now. Even when I'm walking about on stage as King Lear, there's probably a history, some flavour in me, in my bloodstream, of that world."

Perhaps there are some parallels between preaching and performing? "I suppose if anything has remained with me from that period, it's the sense that acting could be in the same ball park as spiritual enquiry into the nature of our existence," he says thoughtfully. "Theatre can do that. It can make us reflect on our relationship to each other and to whatever cosmic forces you might think of, which we all have to answer in some fashion, during our life or not - either God singular or gods plural."

What does he thinks Lear's relationship is with the gods or God? "At the beginning of the play he appeals to Jupiter, Apollo, the Heavens, the elements, the goddess of nature when he curses his eldest daughter in a most hideous way. But at the end of the play I don't think he has any relationship to anyone apart from his own cavernous hole that's now inside him, where his family once was, where his daughter once was. People say Lear is so bleak - well it is bleak."

So to play Lear is it necessary to sympathise with him? "He's not a very sympathetic man" admits Hicks. "I was only thinking yesterday when Lear enters carrying his dead daughter, why should the audience feel sorry for him? He's caused it, he's caused everything, destroyed everything, himself and his family. The conclusion I came to was that it's not about liking him, it's about being empathetic with that ability to suffer which is universal in all of us in varying degrees."

He has also been playing Leontes in The Winter's Tale and the title role in Julius Caesar, and there will come a time this summer when all three plays will be in the RSC repertory together. It's probably just as well that Caesar is a smaller part. "It' s a great role to play though, Caesar," he says appreciatively. "It's my rock and roll moment. I think I'm slightly influenced by Mick Jagger in my interpretation. I play him with an extrovert joie de vivre - not entirely expected, but that's all right."

Hicks is clearly a bit of a barnstormer himself and, warming to his theme, he goes on: "There's a moment where Lear says: 'Go, go, my people' which is deeply Moses in the desert." He gives a big throaty laugh: "A deeply Moses moment."

Performance details at www.rsc.org.uk

Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011