Voices Off talk: Lear and Daughters

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This is a transcript of the Voices Off event on 25 November with Glenda Jackson (King Lear), Morfydd Clark (Cordelia), Jane Horrocks (Regan) and Celia Imrie (Goneril), chaired by Sarah Crompton.

Sarah Crompton: Hello and welcome to this Voices Off talk for King Lear. Were very lucky to be joined by the three daughters Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Morfydd Clark. Glenda Jackson will join in a few minutes. Jane, lets start with you. It strikes me, and I think Deborah Warner the director said this, that the important thing about having Glenda Jackson playing Lear is not her gender but her age and that does sort of slightly influence the portrayal of the daughters. And I wondered how it had affected your playing?
Jane Horrocks: It is incredible, I mean, as Celia said, we stand in awe really, that any eighty-year-old that can do that is pretty incredible, so I think Im just awestruck by it. And regarding the gender, Ive never questioned that: even from day one, I didnt ever think, Oh its a woman playing Lear, Ive always just accepted that shes a guy and I think Glenda just convinces you that actually shes neither one nor the other, shes kind of like this asexual being that could be a guy and that is, again, in itself, a brilliant thing to be able to pull off. So yes, shes a marvel all round.
SC: And does it make Regan a more sympathetic character, in some ways, that she is dealing with an older father?
JH: I think she sometimes takes a sympathetic approach, but I think the underlying feeling is she wants to get what she wants and shell use any tactic to get round her. I think shes wily, is Regan, and thats interesting that she picks up on Lears age all the time, and thats quite interesting actually that shes brave enough to touch on that and to say that actually, Youre approaching senility and youd better watch out. Theyre interesting lines that Regan has got and she is brave, actually, with Lear.
SC: And Morfydd, Cordelia is quite different as well in your interpretation: shes much bolder than normal. How did that arise?
Morfydd Clark: Thinking about why Lear loves Cordelia so much, what I decided on is that it’s because they are quite similar, so really I just watched Glenda and tried to take little bits of Glenda to make Cordelia a little bit more feisty than she might be sometimes.
SC: And did you feel, being slightly less experienced, did you feel at all overawed coming into the rehearsal room with all of these people?
MC: I did absolutely, up to the first day, but then I came in and everyone was so kind and lovely. I think because its such a huge cast, you felt so protected by just having this big cushion of wonderful actors around you, so its quite the opposite once you were on the job because I just felt so secure being with all these people whove done so much.
SC: And Celia what was it like in the rehearsal room? Where did you start the play?
Celia Imrie: It was a nightmare! We rehearsed, believe it or not, for longer than we are going to play, which is rather peculiar. But were a company of real weirdoes actually, were not quite the number you would first think of for any of the parts, which I think is thrilling. Were not, and Ill probably get struck down for this, were probably not what you might imagine the Royal Shakespeare Company might present to you, because were all a bit strange, but I think that makes it…
JH: Speak for yourself!

Glenda Jackson enters.

SC: Welcome. So Im going to ask you two things. Firstly, how does it feel to be back on stage after so long a gap?
Glenda Jackson: Well its curious because its as though Ive never been away. I mean, the way one is accepted back, its quite extraordinary. It is a profession where you can work very, very closely with people and then you dont see them for a very long time, but then when you bump into each other its as though youve always been in each others company, and that was very much the feeling of coming back to work and I was immensely relieved to have other peoples voices. Id been stuck with that effing text all on my own for a very long time, and people kept saying to me, Have you learned it? Have you learned it? and Id say, ‘Well Ive learnt the words but I havent done the cues yet’, so when you actually had the other voices it was marvellous.
SC: And how did it arise that you came back as Lear?
GJ: It came about because my friend Nria Espert, who is a very great Spanish actress, did it in Barcelona and I went over to see her in and she was great, and she said to me, ‘Why dont you do it?’ and I said, ‘Dont be ridiculous!’ I said, ‘They wouldnt let me do it in England! A woman having a go at Lear? And someone whos been away that long, everybody would have apoplexy’. But then The Old Vic wanted me to do something, and so it just sort of came about really. Someone else said to me, Youve got to do it, youve got to do it! and here we are doing it.
SC: And whats the appeal of the part?
GJ: The appeal is the play, actually. I was only saying this earlier, that its always presented as though its a play which stands or falls on the eponymous hero. Every single character in this play is utterly fascinating: they have such depth, they have such twists of character. Its a play which is fascinating on that level and I think we were all pretty careful (and Im speaking for everyone now but Im pretty certain Im right) to eschew all of the academic detail and the academics who tell you what the play is about, and when you come to actually work on it, it isnt about that at all. Its what Shakespeares always on about: who are we, what are we, why are we? So its a great, great play.
SC: And we were talking earlier about the rehearsal room, so to continue that, you had a long rehearsal period: how much, if at all, did you discuss the fact that you were a woman playing Lear?
GJ: It wasnt really discussed at all. I mean my interest really in that aspect of it all, is that in the extremes of age, be that very young or very old, the gender barriers begin to fray. When youre very young theyre not there really, but certainly as far as old age is concerned, they simply begin to drift away and blur, and so it doesnt really matter.
SC: And do you think its the fact of your age, rather than your gender, which affects how the play unfolds?
GJ: Well Im not in the best position to answer that because I havent seen it. But certainly as far as playing it, it is something which, certainly within the text, its in and out: theres some stuff thats overtly very masculine and theres some stuff where you think, Its very frayed here.
SC: Do you think its a good time for women in Shakespeare at the moment? The Donmar Shakespeare is going on, youre here; there seems to be a moment where women are suddenly getting to have a go at Shakespeare.
CI: Well, I mean, its kind of about time isnt it really? The thing is, Shakespeare wrote, generally, about three parts for women and about ninety-nine parts for men in each play, so this is rather marvellous. But on the subject of age, if I could tell you that yesterday, Glenda came to my dressing room and was leaving, and I looked at her and she had her beret on at a very chic angle and looked about seventeen, thats whats so amazing about her. And so the age thing is there, but its absolutely not there, its just a marvellous piece of magic going on all the time.
SC: It is tiring, I presume. Is it tiring?
GJ: Not really because there is such energy in the play that it keeps you going. Ill probably feel tired at about ten oclock tomorrow morning but not now. And whats really interesting, and I dont know whether the others will agree with me here, but when we do two shows a day its actually much easier than when it was first suggested than we thought it was going to be because that energy does just keep you driving on, and thats an energy in the play.
SC: Morfydd, do you agree?
MC: I think Ive got quite an easy time Im banished to France for two hours, so I can never be like, Im exhausted! You do expect a matinee to be tiring, but you are just so wired the entire day, and also it means that you get to have dinner with all your castmates, so it means that you go into the second show all excited about it. Yeah, I love those days actually.
SC: And Jane, what do you think have been the greatest challenges?
JH: Shakespeare.
SC: In what way? Would you like to expand?
JH: Well to me when I was learning it, it did feel like a foreign language. I mean I did this project because of Glenda, and Celia, and Deborah Warner, and Shakespeare isnt my first love, but being in it, Ive had such a great time, and actually it is rich, Glendas absolutely right. Its soulful, the characters are so detailed and interesting. The way that theyre written informs how the character is and you know… I have to admit, it is brilliant!
CI: And so modern too. I hate to say it, but the whole business of wills being dished out now seems to be a source of terrible heartache and families falling out. Its all so modern. The sibling rivalry and everything: hes just got it. He knows.
SC: Lets open out to the audience. Who has a question?
Audience: How, at eighty, do you begin to learn a part like Lear? I cant remember my own name!
GJ: I am blessed in that I have always found it very easy to learn the words, but the Monday after we finish here, I will not remember one of them.
JH: Really?
GJ: I mean it is quite extraordinary. I dont retain. I put that down to work in rep where you are doing three plays at a time, so you couldnt kind of keep stuff. But I mean it is a blessing. My colleagues will probably tell you that I wasnt dead letter perfect this evening, but if you didnt notice, then it doesnt matter…
SC: This is the third time you have been on this stage. Does it feel different coming back, or the same?
GJ: No not at all. I mean obviously the plays themselves are different, but there is no difference in this empty space which happily is filled. And its such a beautiful theatre to work in, the acoustic is great, it looks nice, its close enough without being oppressing, you know, its a lovely theatre.
SC: After such a long gap, does it feel like coming home? How does it make you feel?
GJ: It makes me feel sometimes that I should really go and see a psychiatrist, because I am essentially a masochist. I go through the torments of the damned every single day, but thats been my experience every time Ive done any play and Id be really worried if it didnt happen. So thats that.
JH: But was there a sense of relief after twenty-five years’ absence, after that first preview, was there a sense of huge relief that I can still do it?
GJ: Not really because one of the things that really pursued me in this is that my age would mean that I was physically and vocally not able to do it, so that was a worry. And the other was, everyone will be sitting out there saying, Isnt she marvellous because shes so old, and so there wasnt. And the other thing is, every time we do this play, its the first performance. We have a new audience who havent seen it before, and the demands of the play never lessen and its the bits you find where you think, ‘How did I manage to miss that before?’ Its a clich that everyone in theatre says, Oh its the Everest of theatre, but its not that banal actually, it really is a toughy, but god is it worth the agony. It really is.
SC: Is there another question from the audience?
Audience: Glenda, what are you going to do next?
GJ: God only knows!
CI: I think she should play a French maid. Shed be so good.
GJ: Somebody else said panto. Ive never done panto.
Audience: The Houses of Parliament look like panto…
GJ: Youre being very cynical, I do assure you. There are infinitely fewer laughs than you get in a panto.
Audience: Tonights performance felt very modern and Deborahs work is often so contemporary. What questions have you been exploring in rehearsal about politics and this play about the division of lands and the nature of leadership?
GJ: Well oddly enough the nature of leadership didnt come into it. The division of lands, in as much as Celia said earlier, the family arguments over wills, thats one of the really interesting things, I think. Of course its a division of power, but for the people in the play its very personal and immediate, and that aspect of it is… I dont want to say they take it normally, but its more about those human aspects than the banner headlines of the Mail or the Sun, if you know what I mean.
Audience: Given the gender switching in this play, whats next for each of you?
CI: Well I would never say because I think it jinxes it, so Im open to all offers.
SC: Jane, more Shakespeare perhaps?
JH: Possibly not.
MC: I saw the most wonderful film recently called Lady Macbeth its going to be released next year and it made me really realise what happens when you see a woman behaving badly and not going up in flames, so doing something that doesnt have so much punishment of women, because theres a huge amount of that.
Audience: What do you think about the fact that most childrens first exposure to Shakespeare is being forced to learn about it in schools?
GJ: Well I always thought that it was a terrible idea and I think that there is a way of introducing children to Shakespeare at really a very young age, I mean they really latch on well if you present it to them in a way that is infinitely more about the entertaining than being about learning. And having said that, I remember as a sixteen-year-old when our set text was The Merchant of Venice, and being taken with my class to see Sir Donald Wolfit and his company in Liverpool, and we sixteen-year-old girls all went loathing Shylock because of the way he treated his daughter – we thought he was absolutely abysmal and we all left seeing him as the much maligned victim or everybody else. And that was the kind of power, not only of the play, but the power of the actor, and I think thats a very interesting thing: that it can be something really transformative and something that really opens things up for children because they come with no preconceptions and you cannot fool children. When I was with the RSC, the most feared matinees were the school matinees because you cannot fool them, and if you got through a matinee where they werent popping their Coca Cola cans or throwing orange skins at each other then you really felt as though you were fantastic actors because youd made them listen, and thats a major thing. Theyre fantastic when you get them.
Audience: It seems that you are suggesting that concept of playing gender is fluid. If you had to pick another Shakespeare play, what play would you choose? Where else do you think there is an opening to play gender in a fluid way?
GJ: Well its hard to think of the first one that springs to mind, but for me I suppose something like the chorus of Henry V springs to mind: why should it always be a guy? Mind you some of the guys Ive seen playing were absolutely fantastic, but I mean in that sense and in the whole range, it is entirely possible for there to be, without making it a political gender bender thing, because you know, he is a contemporary dramatist because we dont change. Human nature is immutable and thats all hes ever interested in. Who are we, what are we, why are we. And he sets it in a variety of locales, but thats true for all of us.
CI: I think hed be thrilled to see Glenda as King Lear, dont you, if he was here. I do, I really do.
SC: Im really, really sorry but we have to end it here. Its been a privilege to watch the play and have this conversation. Thank you all.

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