PerformanceRegional Shakespeare

King Lear – A Director’s Blog, Part 1

By March 30, 2016 One Comment

Karl Falconer is an award-winning theatre and film director based in England. His work with Shakespeare and classical drama has been staged across the UK and Ireland, and he has produced work in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre amongst others. His work has received support and praise from key industry figures including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh and more. His production of King Lear will tour in July.

Early days. General sense of dread. It’s not lightly that you decide to direct King Lear and I’m currently still in the grip of fear inherent in tackling this mammoth play. Luckily, I know this phase will pass. Last year I directed Hamlet, which we relocated to Liverpool in the 1980s. It wasn’t really until I had that Big Idea that the play became something else in my mind. That idea liberated the play for us, bringing the story into its own time and place. We as the company were in control of the play now, it was no longer some tall mountain overshadowed by its previous performance history.

It’s always the same when tackling any Shakespeare play, and it’s something I quickly try and do without. Of course, we must respect the text and the fact that this is an incredible artistic achievement from a writer at the top of his game. But it remains just that: a play. As with Hamlet, it is useless to cripple ourselves with the weight of ‘the greatest play ever written’, or the memory of Lears past and present. This is our own story about a king and his daughters.

This weekend I read the play through fully for the first time since deciding to stage it ourselves. I’ve read it many times previously at college, and have been fortunate to see productions as ranging as Ian McKellen’s much-hailed 2008 portrayal, to the much criticised 2010 Liverpool Everyman production starring the late Pete Postlethwaite. I am hugely looking forward to seeing what Greg Doran and Antony Sher do with the play this autumn, for my mind, the most excited I’ve ever been about a theatre production.

Ian McKellen divides his kingdom in Trevor Nunn's RSC Production, which toured the world in 2008.

Ian McKellen divides his kingdom in Trevor Nunn’s RSC Production, which toured the world in 2008.

Several things strike me on this initial reading. This feels like a play of two halves; before the interval we’re following a relatively straightforward, if slightly aggressive, path. There’s a lot going on, but nothing unachievable. But after the interval it’s like a bomb has gone off. Suddenly this explosion of drama takes place on a huge stage with a relentless succession of complete tragedy. It’s exhausting.

The play is long – due to the restrictions of our festival slots we have to deliver the play in under two hours – almost half the play must be cut. This is great in some respects – there are several easy flagging sections – but I worry how intense this will be for the audience.

The language is complex. After a fair bit of time spent working on some of Shakespeare’s earlier work, most recently Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, it’s clear how substantially his own language skills had developed in the fifteen or so years between these periods. I want our play to sound contemporary – as if it could have been written yesterday – and I foresee we’ll probably spend most of our time working on the text before we can even begin to think about action.

Ronald Harwood's play, The Dresser, follows the backstage struggle of a classical theatre actor (Anthony Hopkins, above) to portray the immense challenge of Lear.

Ronald Harwood’s play, The Dresser, follows the backstage struggle of a classical theatre actor (Anthony Hopkins, above) to portray the immense challenge of Lear.

This stage is always the most frightening and the most fantastic. Ideas flow as I scramble for any inspiration from the unlikeliest places that may eventually formulate ideas that can join together to create a workable concept for the production. In many ways, I want to dive straight into rehearsals now, to start cracking the text and playing out ideas freely in rehearsal. We have a really unique international cast – with actors from as far ranging places as Canada, Northern Ireland, Latvia and Sheffield. I think the creative process, and the product of our working together, is going to be really special.

But for now, it’s back to the drawing board, literally, to patiently filter through the play and gradually seek to move closer and closer to Shakespeare’s intentions behind the words, whilst imprinting our own individuality upon it.

The road to Lear starts now.

Find out more about us and our production at

Follow Karl’s other series’ of blogs exploring how his company tackled other Shakespeare plays, here: Plays In Performance

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