Having recently completed a run playing Lear, I've learned a few things. I pass them on to those who're interested. Also, I'd like to hear from other Lears to see what your experience was.
1. Burbage was a genius too.
Oh, sure Shakespeare was a genius. No doubt. But I don't think he would have written these plays and these parts if Burbage couldn't do them justice. Burbage must have been an acting genius. To play Hamlet, Othello, Lear, the Scottish guy, as well as Bassanio (in Merchant), Benedick, Petruchio, and Richard III – in a rotating rep. . . .
Well, hat's off, gentlemen. Here is an acting genius. There are very few contemporary actors who have the chops and the ability to do what Burbage did. So, I learned to really admire the first guy.
2. The "Storm Scene" Sequence is hell.
It's a tough go from the end of the argument with Regan and Goneril that results in "O reason not the need . . ." through to the end of the "Arraignment Scene" in the hovel. The Storm essentially becomes a three scene sequence -- the initial storm with Fool and Kent, the addition of Edgar as Poor Tom, and then the "Courtroom." When we first discussed the text for performance, I suggested that we cut or rearrange some of the interstitial scenes so that the sequence would just proceed without a break. What an idiot I was. Fortunately the director did NOT listen to me. The scenes were kept. And I got a chance for a quick breath and some much needed water. What a help that was. And even if the scenes went less well than I liked, it still hurt like hell by the end of the thing.
3. Jim Harbour gets to give me a free paste in the snoot.
So, one of my early jobs in this business was as a dramaturge for a production of King Lear. Christopher Owens was the director. He and I were given the mandate to have a performance time of 2 hours and 20 minutes with intermission. We came darn close. But part of that included cutting the interstitial scenes, meaning that our Lear – Jim Harbour – had to do the whole thing at one go. I haven't seen Jim in decades – nevertheless, he gets a free punch. And I deserve it.
4. Part of Lear is learning where you can drink water and when you can pee.
To get through it, you have to keep drinking water. And given that you no longer have a young man's bladder, one leads to the other. With a costume change going in and out of the "Waking Up" scene with Cordelia (" . . .Thou art a soul in bliss . . ."), it was a challenge to find a way to empty before bringing on Cordelia dead.
5. Cordelia has maybe the most thankless job in the show.
The poor woman (boy originally) who gets Cordelia has her work cut out for her. She gets a pile of abuse in the first scene from the actor playing Lear. Then she has to go sit in the Green Room for more than an hour. Then, when she does get back on stage, she suddenly has to behave like she has some care and affection for the old gent who abused her and banished her to the Green Room. And finally she has to put up with being carried on as a dead body by that same old gent. Not easy work.
I had a very gracious Cordelia.
6. Lear needs a strong Kent and a strong Fool.
While the Fool doesn't stay with Lear throughout the play, his support is a key factor in getting through the damn thing. Likewise, Kent's stability can help provide a useful anchor through some very tough scenes. Luckily again, I had a very good Fool and Kent, which allowed Edgar and me to do some crazy stuff together in the midst of the Storm.
7. Playing Lear is all about giving.
Lear starts the play by giving away his kingdom. He then gives up his sanity. He then gives up his life. I don't know that I'm a very giving actor. I'd like to be a more giving actor. But I kept looking for ways to give more. Give more to my scene partners. Give more to the audience. Give more to the play. I looked for places where I could physically give things away and shed things. Every time I found something else to shed or give away, I thought I was on the right track.
The only thing about that is that the play always demands more.
Who knows if I could have given more? I hope I have the chance some day to return to the role and figure out more about the character and the play. I was enormously blessed and lucky to get to do it. And I was blessed and lucky to do it with a fine director and a good cast of actors. I'll leave the future to the future.
Look there. Look there.