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 turned out directing King Lear wasn’t easy. I write now in the wake of our final rehearsal, an exhausting final run–through followed by yet another intense notes session and a further impenetrable ‘To Do’ list facing me for the rest of the week.
It’s not that we are panicking, or behind schedule, or struggling with the logistics, far from it. Handling projects of this size is second nature to me now: at Christmas we performed not one, but two plays on a larger scale than this: bawdy comedy, high tragedy, sword fights and war scenes were the Henry IV plays, so a couple of hours of old men moaning about the weather should be a breeze in contrast!
It’s not an exaggeration though to say that King Lear has been the hardest play I’ve ever directed. I relish setting myself challenges and raising the bar. One of our first productions was Titus Andronicus, and since then we’ve tackled everything from The Homecoming to Hamlet, from Willy Russell to Euripides. But nothing has ever challenged me quite like Lear.
With Titus, and even with Hamlet, the choices we took were obvious. We made some pretty radical decisions – some were responded to really well, some less so – but all the time it felt like the right thing to do. Lear doesn’t give you that freedom. It is so big, so enormous, so explosive, it’s impossible to feel that you’ve ever grasped it.
I read an excellent book as part of my preparation for the show, Performing Lear, in which hundreds of actors and directors recount their experiences of tackling this mammoth play. The worrying thing is, one person will say one thing with absolute conviction and in the next entry somebody equally as wonderful, and revered, and successful, is saying the complete opposite. The play is an enigma. At once all things and nothing. Like trying to hold water in your hands. To set it somewhere specific limits it beyond comprehension. But without structure, its sometimes wobbly plot and distant characters seem weak.
I’ve always stood by the mantra that I want to affect an audience. I want them to think and to be challenged and not to be comfortable. The cinema is for indulgence. The theatre should be a place of revolution and conviction. If you aren’t still talking about this play on the bus home, we haven’t done our job properly. I want to challenge and divide and to make you have an opinion and to ask questions. Otherwise, what’s the point? You’re spending your money and time in our company, the absolute worst thing we could do is present something bland and unmemorable.
I teach my actors to take their responsibility seriously. To tell the story with absolute conviction and honesty. And indeed, in directing this play I’ve found my role has changed. In raising the bar further than I’ve ever done before, I’ve forced myself into the role of teacher: I want every sound and image in this play to mean something. And so we have taken great pains to clarify the speaking of the text and to give every moment the energy it demands. Everything has been worked out and decided to within an inch of its life. When you see Edgar walk in in his mask in the final scene, know that there is a whole document of mask ideas which were eventually whittled down to the one we’ve chosen. Letters in this play are delivered in bright red envelopes; messengers of doom pre-empting the bloodshed they all lead to. Characters in all black and white become much more as you see Lear, Cordelia and Edgar representing all aspects of Christianity in the final act.
This is truly the first play where I haven’t been able to switch off. New ideas come in the middle of the night. It challenges you to be at the top of your game, and when you watch, spare a thought for our actors who all have day jobs and school, or college, and whom have met the bar I set for them and then some. I didn’t know if it would work in this way, but when you see Emily, our 15 year old Cordelia, take Paul as Lear in her arms, I think you’ll agree that there’s something special.
It’s wonderfully humbling that we’ve almost sold out many of our shows before we’ve even hit the road. It reminds you of the significance of what you’re doing. As Paul said to me the other day, ‘We HAVE to do it, so there’s no point panicking.’ Having said that, I have solid proof he has since started panicking. Might be something to do with all those lines.
It is a surreal experience though. I can’t imagine what it must feel like, about to perform Lear. It’s like Hamlet. The pressure is enormous. You know the audience want you to be good. But if there’s one thing I took away from Performing Lear, it’s that the part demands something else of an actor: being able to rage is great, being strong enough to bring in Cordelia at the end is a bonus (‘Get a light Cordelia’ was Donald Wolfitt’s advice for anyone taking on the role, ‘And keep an eye on the fool!’), but truly successful Lears, the Lears who really ascend those limits and really connect with an audience, are the Lears who reveal something about themselves. Something about their own fears, their own vulnerabilities. We’ve all loved too much, we’ve all taken things for granted. Everybody playing Lear has lived a life; perhaps full of health scares or a slow, creeping fear of growing old.
I can’t wait to see how people respond to our Lear, Paul Carmichael. And with such an incredibly strong cast, I think you might find yourself surprised at who else you find yourself sympathising with too.
Smock Alley, Dublin, 10-12 July: http://smockalley.com/king-lear/
Greater Manchester Fringe, Hope Mill Theatre, 22 July: http://www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk/details.php?show_id=321