SECOND AGE Theatre Company makes its annual visit to the Town Hall in the first week of February with its production of one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays; King Lear.
Directed by Wexford-born Royal Shakespeare Company member Donnacadh O’Briain - whose Shakespearean productions in Ireland have been described by The Irish Times as “inspired” and “as good as it gets” - this production of Lear has more of the best from the RSC with the company’s associate artist Gerard Murphy in the title role.
Newry-born Murphy, best known for his many theatre performances with the RSC, also has film and television credits in such productions as the BBC’s Vanity Fair and Hollywood blockbuster Batman Begins.
This Lear also sees Catherine Cusack making a very welcome return to the Irish stage in the role of Goneril.
At the end of a Friday afternoon’s rehearsals, director Donnacadh O’Briain took time out to talk about his staging of Lear. First I asked his opinion on the oft-aired assertion that Irish actors aren’t entirely comfortable doing Shakespeare.
As an Irish member of the RSC O’Brian is singularly well-qualified to judge the merits or otherwise of that assertion.
“I think it’s only true in so far as Irish actors don’t get the opportunities to do as Shakespeare as often as actors in the UK do,” he suggests. “Doing Shakespeare does require actors to use different muscles than they need for modern day plays - in the same way that acrobats use different muscles for different routines - so you do need to become practised at Shakespeare to become truly skilled.
“But our cast for this production is almost entirely Irish - and I specifically cast it that way - and we have a group of actors who have all the technical ability and craft, and the bravery and emotional honesty that is required for doing a play like Lear. So I think that shows Irish actors can do Shakespeare very well given the chance.”
King Lear is Shakespeare’s most modern of plays and this version by Second Age, set in an industrial landscape, it is brought to life in this unflinchingly contemporary theatrical production.
Michael Vale, designer for Olivier Award-nominated productions with both the English National Opera and Royal Opera House, has designed a stage both beautiful and modern, reminiscent of the Bauhaus movement. Coupled with Philip Stewart’s original composition, and lit by award-winning lighting designer Sinead Wallace, the atmosphere is set to be electric.
“You have to approach it as though it were a new play and try to forget it’s been done before,” says O’Briain of his approach to this towering classic. “You discover it in the rehearsal room, not at home.
“In rehearsal you go through every scene on a practical level and then you can start to crack open the play’s big questions. I wouldn’t even begin to try to tackle the questions at the play’s emotional core until I’ve begun rehearsing.”
King Lear is at once a family drama, putting child against father and brother against brother; a psychological drama, telling the breakdown of the mind of a once great man; and a political thriller, confronting us with the near destruction of a nation in a vicious power struggle.
This Lear is set in a nation born out of civil war, and raised in the hothouse of the bitter northern conflict, where the gangsters have taken over. While remaining true to the language, this production promises a stark new vision of the play. A King Lear that is modern, Irish, and that reflects the issues of the day.
“It’s always good to get a contemporary parallel for a classic play like this,” says O’Briain. “It grounds the play and lets it speak to this place and this time. One of the things I want to avoid is performers doing what I call their ‘Mr Shakespeare acting’ which can be very artificial. We’re playing for an Irish audience, many of whom will be in their late teens, and if we ignored that we couldn’t create anything that would really engage them.”
Does O’Briain find the notion of playing before schools audiences daunting, considering that a portion of them will only be there because they are obliged to be and will have little or no love of Shakespeare, or theatre?
“I think there are benefits to be had from performing for schools audiences,” he suggests. “Young adults have some of the sharpest minds, they have active fast-moving brains. As a director, I have to have elements of both showman and entertainer to hook them in and take them out of their normal world.
“Once you’ve grabbed them you then trust the playwright to do the rest. Shakespeare’s plays all have a thriller aspect, they’re all very pacy. One of the notes I gave to the cast at the start of rehearsals was the famous words of advice from Shakespeare-director Harley Granville Barker; ‘be swift, be swift, be not poetical.’ I think our production will be able to engage all our audience, whether adult or teenager.”
Given the impressive array of talent which Second Age have assembled for this production that seems a racing certainty.
King Lear runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday February 3 to Saturday 7. There are 1pm performances Tuesday to Friday and 8pm performances on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Booking is through the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.