King Lear unleashes summer madness in the forest clearing

With the wind in the trees, the creaking of the branches, the scent of pine needles and the atmosphere provided by the trees enveloping the natural performance space, Joanna Carrick is confident that the setting is perfect for this summer’s production of King Lear.

Red Rose Chain’s Theatre in the Forest has become a mainstay of Suffolk’s cultural calendar and after romps such as Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale they are returning to dramatic territory with one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

King Lear is the story of a foolish and vain monarch who, towards the end of his reign, is flattered by the overtures of two of his three daughters, with tragic consequences.

Having staged Hamlet and Macbeth in the forest, Jo said that this year audiences will be treated to a fabulous story of human frailty and vanity. Despite the inherent tragedy in the tale, she said Lear is full of entertaining high drama and is a very physical, atmospheric play which is well suited to an outdoor setting in Rendlesham Forest.

In a surprising move which should give the production a dynamic edge Jo has cast 27-year-old Edward Day as the crazed king.

Lear is usually the preserve of experienced older actors but Jo is convinced a younger performer can bring out other elements in the character which should provide the outdoor production with added energy.

She said: “It’s an epic story, a big, large-scale, fairytale. You’ve got princesses and the fool – there’s so much excitement as well as action and battles, and it’s very, very funny. People often overlook that. It’s got some wonderful one-liners.”

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She is planning to direct the play in a very engaging and very physical way. “I think Edward Day is a comic genius. We did Twelfth Night together last year and he played Bottom amazingly well the year before. I think he took Malvolio to new heights last year – particularly the yellow stockings routine with him singing Mellow Yellow – but he is an amazingly physical actor, doing back flips and somersaults, and he became a bit legendary with audiences.

“He is so brilliant at invoking character. I think he will be fantastic at playing age, which is really playing experience and showing it through the physicality. Rendlesham is a very big auditorium and therefore the performance style has to be very bold.”

Edward Day is one of the youngest actors to play Lear on the professional stage. It’s usually the preserve of the older actor – recently both Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi have gathered critical acclaim in the part.

Edward does admit that when Jo offered him the role he was more than a little daunted.

“When Jo first suggested it I thought: ‘You’re mad! I can’t play Lear.’ But then when I settled down and I started thinking about it I realised that it’s just like playing any other role - you’ve got to sit down and think ‘Who is this person?’ and act the person rather than the age.

“For me, my way into that part was when I realised that Lear is an old man who is close to death, and he is terrified of it. He is terrified of letting go. I think anyone can relate to that.”

Ed has just graduated from the physical theatre Lecoq school in Paris and Jo said she knew he would be right for the part because at heart Lear is a true clown. “I just thought that Edward would be the perfect actor to portray the whole range of that character. I thought long and hard about it before I offered it to him.

“He is an amazing clown – in the true sense of the word. He can turn hilarity into tragedy in the space of a breath.”

During pre-rehearsal discussions Jo and Ed hit upon the idea that Ed should also play The Fool, but The Fool would be represented by a puppet worked by Lear.

Ed said it’s clear to the audience that the puppet/The Fool is actually Lear’s own subconscious talking – he’s trying to warn himself about the mistakes he’s making.

“The Fool is counselling Lear. He’s telling him he’s making all these stupid decisions and putting his faith in the wrong people. It’s a classic example of hearing those warning voices in your head.”

Reading up on ventriloquism uncovered the fact that many ventriloquists have confessed that their doll allows them to voice things that they would never otherwise say.

“Lear’s not a ventriloquist. His puppet is just a toy that the king has and he unconsciously uses it to voice his lost thoughts. Everybody has to put up with it because he’s the king but it is really the sign that Lear has finally lost his mind. Also, little by little, the puppet starts to take over.”

Jo adds that having The Fool as a puppet makes it clear that it is Lear who is actually the clown and The Fool is the straight man.

“At the beginning Lear is this tyrannical leader and he talks through this puppet because there is no-one he can talk to – no-one who will answer him back. The Fool comments on Lear and what Lear is doing – so it quickly becomes clear that the puppet is the voice in his head.”

The puppet is being made for the production by actor, director and puppeteer Jimmy Grimes, who has had a long history with Red Rose Chain, appearing in many productions and films over the years.

Jo said: “The whole thing hangs together as a concept. What I am completely sure about is that King Lear is a very funny play and the first half of it, particularly, has got loads of comedy and farce in it. The daughters are hilarious but then the play turns and the tragedy is deep and epic; but I have always been of the opinion as a director that the funnier you can make things, then the sadder they become in the end.”

Her ambition with the play is to make it fun and entertaining. She points out that even in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies there is comic relief. “This is exactly like life. Even on your worst day you will find something to make you smile.

“It’s really important to me that our audience is entertained and engaged. I don’t mean that in a glib sense but I don’t want an audience to be sitting there nodding sagely, thinking ‘I am really bored but I am pretending that I am enjoying this because it makes me look sophisticated’ – that’s not what I am after.”

The wide-open arena encourages a bold, physical performance. “Day one of rehearsals I always say to my actors: ‘Imagine your audience don’t speak English’ and put it over so they understand it. It’s about the physicality of a performance but it’s also about playing with it, putting across the breadth and the complexity of the emotions; and that’s great, because Shakespeare works on lots of levels.

“You don’t need to understand every single word in order to enjoy the play. For me, understanding Shakespeare is not a cerebral process. It’s a play. The plays are written to be performed, not to be studied.”

For Ed, this is his third Theatre-in-the-Forest experience and says it is the combination of performing in a natural open-air theatre-space and the collaborative nature of Jo Carrick’s rehearsal technique that keeps bringing him back.

“I love working with Jo. She is a great director – we gel very well – it’s a very collaborative rehearsal process. There’s not a lot of time where you are sitting around, going: ‘Oh how are we going to do this?’ There are a lot of ideas and you just bounce off one another.”

Both he and Jo regard the arena at Rendlesham Forest as a magical place. “The trees just add to the atmosphere. There’s a sense of magic in the air – especially at night, when the trees are all lit up. It’s incredible.”

For Jo, Rendlesham Forest provides her with her favourite theatre in the county.

“It’s a natural outdoor arena right by the visitors’ centre. The intimate setting in the forest clearing means that hearing the dialogue is not a problem. I’m so pleased that in 12 years we have never had one person complain that they couldn’t hear what was being said. Having the audience being able to hear has been a huge priority for me.”

The actors are well used to the demands of outdoor performances and Jo says that if the odd passing car goes by, or an emergency helicopter chatters overhead, then the actors are primed to speak up and “go big” in order to make sure what is happening on stage is far more interesting than what is happening elsewhere.

She said Shakespeare’s art lies in his words. The performances have no recorded sound; everything is created on stage and, because of the natural acoustics of the clearing, the sound does carry brilliantly.

“It’s what Shakespeare is really about. It’s about playing to big crowds; it’s about entertainment. It’s about staging a play for an audience – a mixed audience of all ages and social types – who want to come out for a wonderful evening at the theatre.”

Knowing how far to go when “playing it big” is something which is worked out in Jo’s collaborative rehearsal process. This year there have been extra demands, as Ed has experimented with how to portray the ageing Lear.

Ed said he has been very aware that he is a young, physical actor having to play an elderly man approaching the end of his life and has spent a lot of time trying to get “under the skin” of his character. “I have looked at a lot of older people and studied how they move and seen that fragility. Yet, at the same time, we are a very physical company and we work in a very bold way. So I have gone for more of a Commedia dell’Arte old person – someone who can be very old and frail one minute and, as soon as he has got what he wants, he’ll suddenly do a back-flip.”

He credits Jo with providing a valuable clue to how older people move.

“Early in rehearsals Jo pointed out that when people are old and very fragile, often it is their fear of getting hurt which causes the problems. They get really tense and, because of that, they’ll fall down the stairs or trip up on the pavement and break something.

“A lot of that is the fear itself having an effect.”

He said that because rehearsals are such a collaborative process he feels secure in experimenting with ideas, safe in the knowledge that Jo will keep him grounded.

“The way Jo works is that she pushes you in a certain direction and then you keep going until she tells you to stop.

“You play with ideas and then she sort of trims the edges. I liken it to shaping a bonsai tree.”

He said that the opportunity of playing Lear at such a young age has been an eye-opening experience both for him as a person and as an actor.

“For me, Lear begins with what is the final scene of his life. He is the king, he is dying and he thinks it’s all about life ending happily, but the people around him are starting to undermine his power. He wants to stay in control, but he can’t because he’s old, his mind is starting to go and people are taking advantage of that.

“From that, great theatre is born.”

n King Lear by Red Rose Chain, directed by Joanna Carrick, will be staged at Rendlesham Forest from July 24 - August 26

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