King Lear is the story of an elderly king faced with his own mortality and the task of dividing his kingdom amongst his three daughters.
The titular King Lear’s fantasy of a smooth transition of power soon crumbles before him as he banishes his youngest daughter before his two elder daughters betray his confidence. They remove Lear from any of the power he attempts to cling to, driving him mad and estranged from his kingdom.
With nothing left to his name, Lear becomes a ghost of sorts, haunting the land he once ruled. And in tragic Shakespearean fashion, by the end of the story, none of the characters finish better than they begin.
Directed by professor in Theatre and Dance Amy Seham, King Lear is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “greatest tragedies,” and Seham adamant about the role family plays in the production.
“The play can be seen as a family drama about the relationships of parents and children, as a political piece about the struggle for power, or as an existential exploration of our ideas about the ‘self’, among other interpretations. I was particularly drawn to the tension between the King Lear and his three adult daughters,” Seham said.
Professor Emeritus Robert Gardner will be returning to Gustavus to play the titular role of King Lear in the upcoming performance. Similarly to Seham, Gardner acknowledges the family aspect of Lear.
“Family quarrels are timeless and this play, at its heart, is a play about family quarrels,” Gardner said. “The play challenges the audience to make some leaps, first of all with the rich, dense semi-archaic language. But if you are willing to make the leap (reading the play in advance isn’t a bad idea), that language can stick with you for the rest of your life. It can take you to very dark and very brilliant places.”
One of the more interesting parts of King Lear compared to his other plays, is that Lear is one of Shakespeare’s furthest dives into femininity and power.
Historically, the king of Britain is succeeded by his oldest son, but Lear only has daughters, so it is assumed that the daughters’ husbands will inherit most of the power that comes with Lear’s kingdom.
First-year Morgan Fuller plays Goneril, one of the elder daughters and more sinister characters throughout the play.
Fuller’s take on the character is that Goneril can be best described as “complex.”
“She is the eldest daughter of the king and feels trapped and burdened by the men in her life,” Fuller said. “Her father is no longer carrying authority well, and she views her husband (Albany) as weak and useless. Throughout the show she is pushing back against the established powers, but makes some bad choices to do it.”
Seham also sees Goneril as a sort of tragic figure instead of a villain.
“While the two oldest, Goneril and Regan, are often seen as irredeemably wicked, there are many of us who struggle to care for an aging parent who refuses to accept change. I worked to humanize all three sisters, and give more credit to a female perspective in the play. To this end, I also cast the same actor to play Cordelia and the fool, making a connection between the two characters that always speak truth to Lear.”
Gardner described what it’s like having been on set and training with his fellow actors:
“Working with this cast has been challenging and exciting: it’s made me realize how old I am! Also, the actors have a very strong sense of ensemble—something I have been hugely impressed with from the beginning. They work well together, enjoy being with each other, and seem to have a real sense of ownership of the production.”
Similarly, Seham only had good things to say about the Emeritus Professor.
“I have particularly enjoyed working with my colleague, Professor Emeritus Rob Gardner, playing the role of Lear. I would not have chosen to produce King Lear without an actor of Rob’s stature in the role, so I feel very fortunate that he was willing to work with us, and share his experience and knowledge with the cast,” Seham said.
King Lear will be performed on May 6-7 and May 12-14 in Anderson Theatre.