NNT Interview: King Lear

The final show of the Nottingham New Theatre’s autumn season is upon us, so Impact Arts returns for the last time this term to talk to Gus Herbert and Matt Standen, director and producer of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Firstly, can you describe the plot of ‘King Lear’ for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be taught it at school?

Gus: The play follows the story of Lear who is the King of England. At the start, he divides the kingdom between his three daughters and in a public ceremony asks them to declare their love for him. When his youngest – and favourite – daughter Cordelia refuses, he disowns her and then things start to deteriorate massively.

And what made you choose ‘King Lear’ out of a) all of Shakespeare and b) all plays in general, for the New Theatre’s in-house season?

Gus: I really wanted to put on a play that focuses on mental illness and Lear has always been my favourite Shakespeare, I think it’s beautifully written and it’s one of the simpler tragedies to read in terms of language. I watched the National Theatre’s version earlier this year which rekindled my love for it and my desire to put it on.

Matt: Fundamentally, it’s well-known. A lot of people have read it, a lot of people study it, but I don’t think it’s staged as much as some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet. What I like about it is that it’s not a love story in the traditional girl-meets-boy sense, it’s more about the dynamics of family and power.

Gus: It’s been described as Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy, and I think this is partly because the notion of revenge is absent from the play. We don’t get the rise and fall that we expect from a Shakespearian tragedy, it’s just Lear’s rapid decline.

‘King Lear’ is a very well-known play that has been adapted and revised numerous times for stage and screen, so what is it about your production that is unique?

Matt: We’ve decided to approach the text from the angle of mental health. A lot of the time Lear is the figure with whom the audiences’ sympathies lie, but we wanted to focus on the effect his mental illness has on the people around him, particularly on the Fool who is close to Lear and has to really deal with him at his worst.

Gus: We’ve also tried to explore the political landscape of the play in greater detail. A lot of productions tend to focus on familial relationships, but we’ve really tried to consider characters’ political status’ within society. Simon Russell Beale, who played Lear at the National earlier this year, noted how no other Shakespearean character makes his fatal mistake so early on in the play. In our production it’s within the first minute and a half that Lear makes this mistake that triggers his downfall and ultimately determines the entirety of the play.

Have you chosen to update the play at all?

Gus: We’ve not put a specific date on it, but our production is generally set in a modern, contemporary-to-now period. The characters are all in modern business attire as if they are politicians, with the army of knights updated to represent a government’s Secret Service.

Matt: The themes of the play are so universal and recognisable today. We didn’t want people to enter the theatre and see a stuffy early modern setting. If you take away things like period costume and extravagant sets, you allow for a real focus on what’s actually being said.

Finally, if you could sum up your production in one sentence, what would that be?

Gus: Epic, thrilling and devastating.

Matt: Sombre, genuine and compelling.

Charlotte Van Rhee

‘King Lear’ is on at 7:30pm at the Nottingham New Theatre from Tuesday 9th-Friday 12th December, with a 2:30pm performance on the Friday. To reserve tickets, click here.

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