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.
It’s been a while since I wrote about cutting Lear and developing some initial ideas. We’ve been fully wrapped up in another production, largely with the same cast, which we take to Dublin this week.
This production – a showcase of a variety of work by the influential dramatist, Harold Pinter, is set up deliberately as a companion piece to King Lear, which will follow. Although Pinter is famous for his dramatic pauses, it is his language which carries the power and energy of his pieces. Everything is off beat. Everything is subtext. People say one thing and mean three others. Watching Pinter, one’s mind is entirely focused. You can’t switch off for a second.
These are all qualities with which I want to infuse Lear. As early as two weeks ago I had settled on a concept and a design and aesthetic for the play which I have now completely re-thought in light of our work on these Pinter plays. We are deliberately producing them in a minimal way: for logistical simplicity as much as anything else, but the effect of this is magical. As an audience member, your reward for your investment is doubled: you are utterly focused on the actors and the words.
We began our Lear rehearsals with an intense weekend of workshops. Taking heavily from the works of Cicely Berry – the RSC Vocal Coach legend – our focus was to return to the words. Cis believes – and as the hidden genius behind all of the great classically trained actors of the late 20th century, I’m inclined to believe her – that we have a secondary, subliminal connection to words beyond their literal meaning. How many times have you laughed at a joke in a Shakespeare play without fully understanding it? Or been moved to tears by a tragic death speech littered with words and imagery that passes you by without a detailed reading? There is an energy and a primal connection to sounds within words, which guide our emotional response. ‘Inch thick, knee deep,’ says Leontes as his jealousy consumes him in The Winter’s Tale. Say those words out loud: you can literally hear his thoughts becoming jagged and uncomfortable.
Our set for Lear currently is a black box which we are going to gradually add to and destroy as the performance proceeds. With only two rostra and an array of chalks – each actor will be barefoot and everyone will wear black and white. When props or colour are used, they will take on an added significance being brought into this sacred area. Nowhere will this be typified more than by the character of the Fool, who will be in clown-face.
There’s a lot owing to Peter Brook here as well as strong influences from Ivo Van Hove and his work with the Toneel Group in Amsterdam: the shared thinking is simple; to bring productions back to their very essence and to find the true substance of a play through the words. I think this is especially important for Lear, which feels like an untamed beast if you try and conceptualise it: it’s too big for that. It is too grand and deals with issues too far beyond human comprehension for us to limit it needlessly to a specific time or place. All of its grandeur and all of its epic loneliness comes from the words. Learning the lines, you notice how the words get bigger and more cosmic as the play shifts into the second half. It is majestic in its proportions.
One final observation which is leading my thinking is a surprising one for me. Working in depth on this play, it is startling how similar King Lear is in structure and form to an early play of Shakespeare’s: Titus Andronicus.
Titus is often derided as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, written by an immature dramatist unsure of his own ability and simply trying to crowd please. I have written about this before, including my own thoughts on the show in performance, and it is one of my proudest achievements through our 2011 collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, that we helped to create a real shift in the perception of this play, before the Globe or the Fringe and seemingly everyone else started producing Titus at any given opportunity. Our production of Titus forever has a soft-spot with me, and it’s exciting to discover the similarities in King Lear. The violence that is derided as being gratuitous in Titus is just as seemingly erratic in Lear – I would bet money that the last time you saw this play, someone laughed during the blinding of Gloucester. The dark humour runs throughout, the central focus of a father and daughter who ultimately must die to redeem their sins, and the unstoppable spiral into irrecoverable madness are all there. Even structurally, in Act 3 of Titus Andronicus, Titus himself calls on the sea to compound his griefs while Lear rages out into the storm at the end of his wits.
Lear feels like a reworking of the Titus idea by a man more experienced and more world-weary. Titus was one of our first productions and Lear is sure to stand as the pinnacle of eight years of intensely hard work at PurpleCoat. It feels natural for me to treat these two as companion pieces: as bookends for my love-affair with Shakespeare. I too have been shifted and educated by the years and the productions since we first staged Titus: some 20+ shows and many highs and lows between them. It’s tempting to imagine we’re back in the same universe: that somewhere on the next field, Titus is cradling Lavinia, and the same cosmic shift and the same silence of the Gods is being looked upon in the same dark night, waiting for the same sunrise to release them all.
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