Interview with Lear and Dido

Associate Director Gavin Harrington-Odedra speaks to Alice Brown and Jennifer Shakesby who play Regan/Dido and King Lear respectively about our upcoming productions of Lear and Dido: Queen of Carthage at the Greenwich Theatre.

GH-O

I’m here with Jen Shakesby and Alice Brown and we’re talking about the Lear and Dido: Queen of Carthage rep at the Greenwich Theatre in May. Thanks for taking time out of rehearsal to talk to me. You have both worked with Lazarus Theatre Company before. What were you in?

AB:

Well, it’s quite a list. My first production was Macbeth, or the Scottish play if you’re superstitious. And I had such a good time that I thought it’d be good to come back. Then Orestes, Don Carlos, Women of Troy, Lear take one, As You Like It, and Midsummer Night’s Dream.

JS:

I was Orestes in Electra, about two years ago, and Lear mark one last year. King Lear.

GH-O:

What brought you both back for this project?

AB:

For this project in particular, it was the scale of it, and two fantastic plays complementing each other in rep, which is always exciting, for the challenge of it, and two incredible roles for me, personally. Regan is awful in an incredible way and that’s just so exciting to play. In contrast to that, the light and shade of Dido, and an incredible story of Dido, that I think can get overlooked because it is quite difficult to find the nub of what it is all about. But, I think, once you do, it really is quite powerful. And I think that being able to make good theatre with that is what drew me to it.

JS:

Everything she said! Ummm.

AB:

See, now you know how I feel as Regan.

JS:

Lear last year was just such a blast. It was such a great project to be involved in , and so just the prospect of going back to it was very exciting. I return to the company again, and again, but not as many times as Alice, because I think the way of working is very thorough and rigorous, and the standard of ensemble work is unlike most things you’ll find on the fringe. And that dedication to working together, and understanding the way that all your fellow cast members work, and knowing that when you’re on stage you’ve got however many other people supporting you. I’ve likened it to a safety net before. Going on stage and knowing it’s ok if something goes wrong because these people are going to help me through it. That’s quite a rare and unique thing.

GH-O

Most people would have heard of King Lear before, Dido, not so much. Can you tell us a bit about Dido?

AB:

Absolutely. As I’ve said, it’s a fantastic love story, essentially, and that’s what I love about the play and the power of that to change somebody’s life completely and utterly, against everything around them, against everything that they know and the power that a small change can make. Obviously, the gods are very influential in the story, but I think it’s fascinating to explore to what extent. Especially in the age that we are in now where religion is a much more intellectualised thing for most people. It’s not just a ‘this is what you believe’ and that’s standard and accepted, end of story. It’s much more of a debate and I think that that’s something to explore through the play and to see what is predetermined and what we have free will over and what are we confined by in society and I think the play explores all of those things with an incredible love story at the centre of it.

GH-O:

And Jen, for those who haven’t heard of Lear before, or have only heard the title, can you give us a quick synopsis of Lear?

JS:

A quick synopsis of Lear? Really? Ahh. In a nutshell, the monarch, Lear, decides that it’s time to hand over the reins of power to her daughters. However, Cordelia decides she’s not going to play the game of telling her mother how much she loves her and is sort of banished. Lear then creates her own downward spiral of tragedy. She banishes or removes from her, all the people who really do love her the most. Running along side that is the Gloucester, Edmund, Edgar subplot where Edmund is trying to find his natural birthright, I guess, by… What’s the right word? I want to say doing over, but I’m sure there’s a more appropriate [word].

AB:

Well, by merit I suppose, by meritocracy as apposed to birthright, although he does it in quite a nasty way.

JS:

Yeah, he screws over his brother. I’m trying not to give away too much. Essentially, Lear descends into what could be perceived as madness and hence the storm scenes and what not. What you essentially see over the course of the play is a world that is quite peaceful and stable, crumble. It’s rotten to the core anyway. So what you were seeing on the outside was just veneer. I think it’s quite exciting to see the freefall of that society and culture.

GH-O:

And possible parallels with modern day, or close to modern day.

JS:

Absolutely.

GH-O:

You both were in King Lear that Lazarus did last year in rep with As you like it at The Space. You both played the same characters that you are playing now. How has that been you both? Obviously you have come back to do the same role again. How is it different? Is it different?

JS:

Oh, yeah, it’s different. I think it’s different [because] essentially it’s a year on. As an actor you always bring yourself to a role. I’m noticing now, a year on, ‘Oh, I don’t think that anymore’. Or, ‘that’s different.’ And of course, we’ve got a different cast. So you’re working with what’s given to you and what’s given to you is different. There’s a new concept. It’s a new staging; it’s a new space.

AB:

I think that’s the challenge. Something that was familiar is not familiar anymore and that can be disconcerting. And I think that it’s important to realise that even if you have gone through something before, you still have to go through the same process in order to realise the play, because without doing that, your result won’t be true, and it won’t be honest and you won’t be able to connect with it the same way as you would if you came to it fresh. For all those reasons you just said, it being a new time, a new context, new people to respond to. I think that’s quite difficult, because you think you know it, but in actual fact you really don’t know it.

JS:

My script is far more covered in pencil than it was last year.

AB:

That’s another of the exciting points about revisiting something, is that you have a ground level of understanding of where the character comes from, so then you can explore more deeper and further. And that’s exciting.

JS:

It’s the really exciting thing, isn’t it. Coming back to something and discovering new things is always really exciting. To go, ‘Oh, I didn’t see that before’ or ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that before.’ ‘Ah, they said that in a different way. That means…’

AB:

But then, isn’t that the joy and wonder of these plays, that they can be done, time and time and time again, 400 years after they had been written, because there’s always more to find. It’s what makes them so exciting to play through performance as well as rehearsal.

JS:

There’s no definitive way to play a role otherwise they’d never be done again and again.

AB:

Exactly! They’d be done and that would be it.

GH-O:

On that note, you have both played quite iconic roles with Lazarus over the last few years. It that possibly why you keep coming back? How is it playing such iconic roles?

AB:

I think it’s certainly one of the reasons. Obviously, any actor would die for the roles that are on offer and that we’ve had the opportunity to play. Surely, if you’re an actor that’s interested in classical theatre, then obviously that’s a huge draw. I think it varies. It was very difficult playing Electra, especially in a company where the other half of the company was playing Electra. [It’s] because, as we’ve just said, there are so many different interpretations of each iconic role, that then everybody’s got their own idea of what that role means. It’s quite difficult to assimilate that information. So, that was a particular challenge, but on the other hand, because within the context of each production, it’s different to what people expect to be a traditional style of what that particular production would be, there’s always something new to discover, which is surely the point. It has to be relevant to what we are doing now.

GH-O:

And Lear is pretty iconic as well. How is it playing Lear? Obviously, Lazarus has a female Lear, has it been difficult to get into the character because it was written for a man?

JS:

Not in our version, no. I’ve never had a problem with it being a woman. It’s always been, not difficult, but a challenge to connect with being old enough, or feeling old enough, or experienced enough to let go, to relinquish your power. That’s been more of a challenge than it being a woman. People associate Lear with being old and decrepit and so I think it’s a challenge to get them on side. To say, ‘No, there are other ways that someone can diminish.’

GH-O:

Absolutely. One final question before we finish. What is the one role you’d like to play before you retire?

AB:

Oh, gosh.

JS:

I don’t intend retiring.

GH-O:

Good answer.

AB:

Well, the role at the top of my list was Electra. Actually, no, I do know what role I definitely need to play and that is Lady M. Having worked on it so much, being in a production of it before, and covering the part [in Lazarus’ production] playing it is one I’d definitely like to do.

JS:

I’m not sure to be honest. I think that every time I get cast in a role, or I create a role, for that moment, it is the most exciting role that I’ve ever played. I don’t think I ever go into a role and say, ‘It’s alright, but, it’s not as great a role as…’ I think there’s challenges and excitement and joy garnered from every role. I wouldn’t want to set a role for myself and never achieve it. I think that would be a shame.

GH-O:

Thank you very much for spending time with us today and good luck, or break a leg as they say.

Both Lear and Dido, Queen of Carthage are playing in rep at the Greenwich Theatre from May 14th to June 1st.

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