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Dialogues in conversation with Michael Pennington

While in rehearsals for King Lear, Michael Pennington sat down with Theatre for A New Audience Literary Advisor and production dramaturg Jonathan Kalb to talk about timing, artistic kismet, and the emotional and physical technique it takes to embody Lear:


Kalb: Is Lear the fulfilment of a long-standing dream of yours?

Pennington: In Britain there’s still an idea that there’s such a thing as a classical actor, a Shakespearean actor, which is different from just being an actor for all seasons. The idea is fainter than it used to be in the days of Olivier and Gielgud, but it still exists, and there is a sort of expectation that if you do a lot of Shakespeare and you’re liked enough to get the good parts, there is a progress that you will go through, roughly speaking: from Hamlet to Richard III to Macbeth and to King Lear.

So at my age, in my generation, I’m supposed to want to play Lear. But I’m not sure that I did want to until a couple of years ago. I couldn’t think what I could possibly add to other performances that I’d seen. I didn’t particularly feel a passion for the play. I’d been in it before in 1976, when I played Edgar/Poor Tom, and I’ve seen it quite often, but I didn’t have a passion to do it. What happened was that about four years ago I was doing a play about a Lear-like character, the composer Richard Strauss, in a Ronald Harwood play. And one day during the project, while washing up from breakfast, I thought, “I want to play King Lear.” That morning I rang some directors I knew and said, “I have decided I want to play King Lear.” It was very royal of me to say such a thing.

The Strauss role had a tragic scale that reminded me of Lear, so I thought it was within my capacity too do such a thing at last. Everyone knows, in the theatre industry, that you have a narrow window to play Lear. You’ve got to be old enough to be convincing - he describes himself as slightly over 80, though he may be exaggerating - and you’ve got to have the energy to fulfil the physical demands of the part and the vitality to learn it. You’ve got to have your  memory intact. Now, the moment in every actor’s career that they fear most is when the memory starts to wobble, or they become physically less capable, and you never know when it’s going to be. It happens to some people in their 50s, and other people in their 90s. John Gielgud was working when he was nearly 100 years old. You’ve got to guess how long you’ve got.

K: that makes it sound almost like you’re ticking off boxes. If the attraction was tragic scale. Well. What has more of that than Hamlet, which you did decades ago? So what else made you hungry to act Lear?

P: There’s a big difference with Hamlet. First of all, Hamlet is a younger man’s play. It’s longer and more physically demanding than King Lear, but of course you are in your 30s or, at the most, perhaps 40, when you play it. The big difference with Lear, which in other aspects is a Hamlet-like peak in a career, is that Hamlet has this relationship with the audience, expressed in the famous soliloquies, which for some reason makes the part much easier to play. You’re got to learn those speeches, you’ve got to perform them well, but the relationship with the audience and what the audience gives you back in terms of vitality is a major difference. Lear doesn’t have any soliloquies. He is essentially locked off in the action of the play, and this makes the part tougher, more hermetic. If I can use that word, more unapproachable. You haven’t got that easy contact with the audience.

At no point does Lear explain to the audience. “Now, the reason I don’t like Goneril as much as I like Regan is this…” Or, “the reason I don’t trust Cordelia is this…” He doesn’t express his secrets. They’re all locked up inside himself. So you watch this fellow lose his wits, whatever that means, and go on this terrible journey entirely within the framework of the play. Macbeth also talks to the audience all the time about how he’s feeling about what he’s done. Richard III, perhaps best of all, talks to the audience with glee and relish about his tremendous transgressions. But Lear is sealed off in the play. That is a fascinating and daunting challenge.

K: What happened after you called those directors?

P: Well, most of them said, “let’s meet in a month or two when I finish my current show and have a provisional talk about it.” There wasn’t quite the pickup that I’d hoped for. On the other hand, everyone thought it was a splendid idea and we should talk about it. But nothing much happened for a couple of years. And then there was a slew of Lears. Everyone suddenly did Lear. And the fashion was for younger actors. Greg Hicks played it at Stratford in his 50s. Simon Russell Beale is playing it now in his 50s. There seemed to be a fashion for getting the good actor while he was still highly capable: in other words, middle-aged rather than elderly. So I couldn’t muscle in.

At this point I came over to New York as part of a tour with Peter Brook’s sonnet show Love Is My Sin, which Jeffrey Horowitz included in TFANA’s 2010 season. And a number of curious things happened there, one of which was that I spied across a crowded room at a party, Arin Arbus. It sounds romantic, and professionally romantic it turned out to be, she was talking to a group of actors, including some of the cast of her Othello, and I was sort of eavesdropping on their conversation about Shakespeare. I could hear them talking passionately and laughing and said to Jeffrey, “Who is that?” Jeffrey told me a bit about her, and Arin and I met and just started talking about Shakespeare. Not about King Lear particularly. And she said such interesting things about the plays that she’s done, especially about the female characters Desdemona and Katherine in Shrew, and I thought “I would really like to work with her.”

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Peter Brook was saying to Jeff, “You know, Michael should play Lear before too long.” Arin wasn’t ready to direct King Lear at the time, but like the good godfather, Jeffrey kept us talking about it by email as he developed plans for the Polonsky Theater. The next step was a workshop. In 2012, we spent a week working on Lear with some of Arin’s favourite local actors, just working through the play, seeing if we got along and seeing if our hunches about each other and about the project were right. And we had a fantastic week, at the end of which Jeffrey and I sat down and said be both wanted to do this.

K: what preparation did you do this year before arriving for rehearsals?

P: I learned the part. I’m of an age when I need to have a good head start on learning a part of this size. Not because I have a memory problem, but because I am slower than I was. In the old days I would learn in rehearsal. But nowadays there’s increasingly a fashion to learn the lines before you start. Directors like it because it spares them that terrible week when the actors have just about put down the book but still don’t know it very well and are constantly making mistakes and attacking themselves for their stupidity. The only bits I didn’t learn were the stuff with the Fool, because that is prose material, very different, and it seemed to me very dependent on how the Fool would be played. I thought it would be better to set up the interplay and then pin down the lines. Same with the Poor Tom scenes for the same reason - the strange stream of consciousness when Edgar is assuming madness and Lear is on his way to madness.

K: So now the big question: who is Lear, for you? Is he a man of overweening pride? Or is he essentially a weak man, deep down? How do you see him as a person?

P: Shakespeare doesn’t give you the sort of thing you would look for as a good Stanislavskian actor. He gives no information about whether Lear has or has not been a good king. He gives no information about whether he normally loses his temper as badly as he does in the first scene. He gives you no information about whether he has had any kind of problem with mental stability before now.

K: But there are clues. People do seem to love him, for instance, and follow him very loyally despite his temper.

P: That;s what we’ve increasingly found in rehearsals. Oddly enough, he inspires a great deal of loyalty from people who don’t necessarily have to give it to him - like Kent, whom he brutally banishes but who sticks to him like a limpet. Also Cordelia, and Gloucester. So I have to conclude that something beyond the office of king is at work here. The safest assumption is that he has been a good, if autocratic king. Autocratic in that sense that Richard II is, with whom he offers a rather interesting comparison. There are obvious differences between those two pairs. But Richard II was born to be king, and his tragedy is that he’s disabused of his assumption that he’s next to God. In a way, Lear is too.

There’s no question of any kind of social revolution in Lear. He clearly is used to power and used to people doing what he orders them to do. In that sense he’s a tyrant and an autocrat, but he may be a benevolent autocrat. And increasingly he has a very short fuse. He gets very angry very quickly, and when he gets angry, he becomes excessive. His curses on his children are long-winded, inventive, and imaginative. He seems to find some kind of release in these denunciations. Whether he was always short tempered I don’t know.

K: Have you made a choice as an actor about what’s going on with him in the first scene?

P: Yes, I think he splits the kingdom out of exhaustion. It’s a very extraordinary thing for him to do, particularly as he’s what we’re calling an autocrat. To divide the kingdom is like declaring a democracy, and it’s a very odd thing. Why does he do it? Well, why do people resign power in Shakespeare? The character of the Duke in Measure for Measure does it, I think out of exhaustion, and also a curious instinct to learn how somebody else does the job.

I think that Lear - though it’s not really anywhere in the text - is concerned about the future. He worries, even if it’s only about remembering names. He feels his mental faculty weakening a little bit and wonders whether he can go on doing his job. Wouldn’t it be better to retire and so the equivalent of gardening? In his case, that means visiting his daughters in rotation. He fancies retirement and assumes that his three daughters will take up the slack and continue his tradition. I don’t like the idea that he’s sort of lazy. He seems to be a man of energy, physical energy and certainly vocal energy. I think he’s just had enough, based on assessing his own capabilities. It’s not any kind of self-indulgence.

K: What are your thoughts about his madness? What mental journey do you see him taking over the course of the play?

P: It’s hardly a journey. It’s more a kind of ricochet from one wall to the other. In the storm, having issued his great challenge to the heavens, “Blow, winds and crack your cheeks,”  he says, “my wits begin to turn.” Something  is happening to him then, but he’s had a premonition. Earlier when he talks to the Fool, he says, “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heavens! Keep me in temper, I would not be mad.” I think he fears the violence of the emotions involved with Goneril and Regan, when they, as he sees it, betray him in the bargain that’s been set about staying with each of them for a month with his 100 knights. Dotted through those early scenes is a little regret about having banished Cordelia, mixed with the shock that he’s not being treated better by Goneril and Regan. That’s what leads him to say, “Let me not be mad,” as if the extremity of his disappointment and anger and frustration could actually upset his mental balance.

K: Do you think something in him breaks?

P: Not really,no. No, I think he’s put under pressure. My mother used to say, “I can’t remember someone’s name. I must have Alzheimer’s.” I said, “You don’t have Alzheimer’s, you’re just afraid of having Alzheimer’s, and that makes you forget the names.” It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear of a thing brings the thing about. In Lear’s case, he has these extreme emotional reactions to what’s happened to him, and no sooner does that happen than he is confronted by the figure of unaccommodated man, Edgar, dressed as Poor Tom. He has a wonderful speech about this: “Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide.” And he becomes fascinated by this wayward figure.

He follows him like he’s a guru, and there’s something kind of demented about that. He even imitates him a bit, saying, “let me talk with this philosopher.” He’s his “Athenian” philosopher. And you’re thinking, “What’s happened to you, Mr Lear? What are you talking about here?” But that coincides with the realization, which is not at all lunatic, that there are people who are poor - the great big banner line in King Lear, “I’ve taken too little care of this.” He’s never thought about it before. He’s never thought about the serfs. He’s the czar, but he’s never thought about the mass of people he rules over, and he suddenly has this revelation about it.

It’s an amazing moment when Lear says, “My wits begin to turn.” He turns to the Fool, who’s shivering out there in the rain, and says, “Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold? I am cold myself.” And they go toward the hovel together. It’s the first time he appears to have noticed, really, what’s going on with anybody around him. And no sooner does Lear have this realization that he’s confronted by the Bedlam beggar, Poor tom. He becomes sort of socialist.

K: How do you see Lear’s relationship with the Fool?

P: The kings of England had fools to keep them in order and keep them from getting out of control mentally and hubristically. There seems to be an affection and a protectiveness toward this character. Lear clearly has need for a confidant, or what he thinks is a confident, but he discards the Fool and turns to Poor Tom. The Fool, I think, dies, or at least goes out of the play, because his place is taken by Poor Tom. This is a very terrible moment for the Fool, who is trying harder and harder and harder to get close to Lear and entertain him, and all Lear will say is, “No, no, I have to talk to my philosopher, Poor Tom.”

So he’s rejected. There is something paternal about his relationship to the Fool as well as something professional about it. The Fool is a professional post, but there’s fondness. At the same time, Lear has never really bothered much about the Fool. He has never noticed whether he is warm or cold or healthy or well-fed or anything. He’s a tyrant to that extent. So this moment of saying, “I’m going mad. Are you alright my darling?” To the Fool is wonderful. What he calls going mad is taking an interest in other people. This is tremendous irony.

K: What about Lear’s relationship to his daughters? Have you had Stanislavskian conversations about this?

P: Freudian ones. And Stanislavskian too. This play is a sort of textbook family tragedy, and it’s also a political play. That’s something Shakespeare often did. What kind of father has Lear been? He appears to be a single parent, as Gloucester is, and very many parents in Shakespeare are. Where is Mrs Lear? It turns out she’s dead, there’s a brief reference, but we don’t know how long ago she died. It’s very difficult to find the biography because Shakespeare, as usual, isn’t much bothered by it.

The main thing is that there’s nothing. I don’t think, genetically wicked about Goneril or Regan. We’re used to seeing them as hateful people, but the legacy of Freud and Stanislavsky is that you try to see the best in the most evil of apparently evil characters. What makes them the way they are? And are they even like that before the play begins? I personally think Lear puts the whole family through a terrible humiliating joke in the first scene.

I mean, fancy, is what is essentially a public political meeting, getting your three daughters, for no particularly good reason, to improvise speeches about how much they love you in order to get bigger and bigger parts of the kingdom. What kind of trick is that? It’s like putting a kid on a table and saying, “Now talk to everyone at the party about how much you love your daddy.” It’s not good parenting. And you have great sympathy with Cordelia for not cooperating, though you may also feel, sometimes, with Cordelia, “Well, she could try a bit harder.” Cordelia has her father’s stubbornness.

But Lear is so unaware of all their needs that he sort of humiliates them publicly in competing for sections of the kingdom when in fact he has already decided what he’s going to do. He has three sections of the kingdom worked out, and he’s going to give each of them a third. But he still makes them compete as if there was a question about the finish. It’s an oddly cruel and vain and wayward thing for anyone to do.

K: Why does he do it?

P: Well, he also had a need for love, or as he would say, he doesn’t get the love he deserves. I think he most of all wants to hear that Cordelia loves him. He’s one of those needy men who have to be told all the time, even when they haven’t really earned the love. He doesn’t deserve those speeches. I think they do really well, Goneril and Regan. They speak very impressive pieces of Flattery, with enormous sincerity.

K: what’s your take on the famous problem of pace and modulation with Lear - the challenge to the actor to start the play on a top note, getting enraged right away in  the first scene, and then have a variety of places to go from there?

P: It’s hard. You’ve got to play instrument fortissimo, and then find a different way of playing it fortissimo. Ralph Richardson, the great and eccentric actor, said, “Playing Lear is like lying on your back on the floor with a machine gun firing at different targets floating around on the ceiling, and with a bit of luck you’ll hit a few of them.” By which he meant the targets were eleven scenes that Lear has. You might get four or five out of eleven. You’re not likely to get all eleven.

The early part of the play is especially difficult, because the language is highly structured, very ornate, very rhetorical, clumpingly metaphorical, and monumental, to use that overused word. But by the time everything dissolves into madness and then reconciliation, it becomes like clear water. The reconciliation with Cordelia has very beautiful monosyllabic speeches that have an enormous emotional effect, and one ought to be able to pull that off. The first half has the rough stuff. It’s really difficult to be that overweening tyrant, and to keep the changes coming and convincing.

The difficult part is the progression, the three consecutive crisis scenes from when he banishes Cordelia and Kent to the storm. The early  scenes are quite short, just two or three pages. But then he travels to Goneril’s house, has the crisis with her, curses her, curses her fertility, then goes to Regan’s house, finds she’s not there and has to go to Gloucester’s. The consecutive scenes in which he confronts Goneril and Regan and finds they won’t house him and all his knights are very difficult. It’s in part a matter of length. The second scene with Regan recapitulates, roughly speaking, what’s happened with Goneril. You know what’s going to happen. You know that Regan is going to reject him too, but for some reason that scene is significantly longer, about ten pages. The other one is about four, and that’s a difficulty. You think it would be the other way around. You’d think with two scenes o a similar subject or similar material, you’s have the big one first and then the recapitulation would be quicker. Like in Much Ado About Nothing when Benedick and Beatrice are hidden and eavesdrop on people discussing how much the other loves them. That’s the central joke of the play, and the second scene with Beatrice is much, much shorter than the first with Benedick. But Lear has it the other way around. The reprise is longer than the original, and that feels unfair. It certainly imposes a real danger of repeating your effects, vocal patterns and physical patterns.

This is where you’re most put to your shifts as a performer to keep up the variety and distinguish between one thing and another as it goes along. After that, once you get out in the storm, it gets much simpler. The scenes in the second half, though they demand all your gifts, aren’t nearly as problematic. You can see what the through-line is and what Shakespeare is up to. The reconciliation with Cordelia is intensely moving partly because it’s so brief. It’s like a little window that opens and closes again, and she’s hanged - a tiny moment when he sees clearly and she’s back with him, they go to prison, and then she’s dead. You see, that’s Shakespeare’s mastery of the narrative. That’s why the play is so upsetting.

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