“Tell me my daughters… which of you shall we say doth love us most?” – the words with which Lear sparks his own tragedy. Debs Newbold captures it all in her one-woman show Lear Retold at Shoreham’s Ropetackle on Sunday, February 11 at 8pm.
Debs aims to bring together the poetic and the irreverent, the ancient and the defiantly modern in an epic piece of story-telling. It all came about through her work as an educator-practitioner at The Globe in London when the venue decided to have a day celebrating Sam Wanamaker, a key figure in The Globe’s modern recreation in London: “I had been doing story-telling stuff, monologuing stuff for a while, and it was something they knew I was interested in. They asked me if I thought that a Shakespeare play could be told for children in half an hour. I said yes… you know how you say yes without thinking about something just because it sounds so exciting! And so I did it. That was 2009, and I did King Lear.
“When you are doing something like that, there are several things you have to think about, and the first is who are you telling it to. I knew that I was telling it in a fun family context, but once I had done that I wanted to develop a piece that I could take into theatres. I was excited by the relationship that you could have with the audience, that you could be talking one moment and the next be Lear, and I was also excited at the idea of doing something for people who really love their Shakespeare but also for people who maybe think that Shakespeare is not for them.
“And then the next thing you have to decide is whose story you are telling. With King Lear, it was obvious that you are telling Lear’s story, though obviously you could also tell it as Cordelia’s story or Goneril’s story or Regan’s story, but I wanted to tell it as Lear’s story… because he is so interesting. Lear is a really, really bad father. In many ways, he is just not a great human being, but he has been a great king, and it is interesting to get to the heart of that. He is a human being who is afraid of dying and frightened by the passage of time, and I don’t think it really matters how old you are, you can always relate to that.
“Some productions portray it as dementia, but I didn’t want to pin it down. I see it much more that one of the big drivers of the play is that he is terrified of death and that when you are facing death, you face up to who you are. And when you do that, you are naked. Faced with our human mortality, it does not matter who you are. You are not a king, you are not a father, you are just a human being faced with death. Lear had so much ceremony around him as a king, but when that is all stripped away, when he isn’t king anymore you are thinking what the hell is life.
“I also think physically and mentally there is also something wrong with Lear, a failing in his body or in his mind, but I don’t pin that down. It is that doubt, it is that thing we have all experienced when you are going through tests for something that might be scary and when you are frightened that your body is not behaving. But I also believe that it is all a ticking time bomb from the way he has brought his daughters up. He treated them very differently, Goneril and Regan and then Cordelia. I don’t actually believe they have the same mother. Ian McKellen said he wore two rings on stage. He believed that Lear had Goneril and Regan with someone he had to marry and then Lear had Cordelia with someone he married for love. He got it very badly wrong with the first time and then slightly better with Cordelia.”