Seana McKenna is a 26-year veteran of the Stratford Festival, who both acts and directs. She recently played Lear for The Groundling Theatre Company in Toronto and is now directing The Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear. She very generously agreed to answer our questions, the day before the Preview. We asked her to help us get inside the world of the play, as actors and directors would. *
TSC: If we might begin with a question that I raised in interviewing Julie Orton [playing both Fool and Cordelia]: how does an actor look at Ted Hughes’ suggestions, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, concerning Shakespeare’s use of myth in King Lear? Of seeing the Fool and Cordelia as representing Lear’s banished soul? Is that helpful?
SM: Actors play intentions. You don’t play the archetype. You may be it! But, you play your moment-to-moment intentions. And your moment-to-moment intention as the Fool, is to, I think, bring him [Lear] to his senses. And it’s out of love. Because the Fool does love him so much; and can say anything. There are very few people who can say the truth to Lear, because he is a narcissistic, egotistical man of power, who has never heard the word no in his life. And so, when, first of all, his daughter doesn’t agree to play the game, and says “I can’t do this in front of people… I love you”, she speaks truth. And then Kent can speak truth, usually, but he is banished in this case. The two truthtellers in the court are banished. So, the Fool takes their place, and continues to speak truth through the rest of the play to him. And then, when Lear begins to really lose his wits, of course Edgar takes the place of the Fool. And he [Edgar] is pretending to be mad, engaging a man who has really gone mad. So, you have all these positions that change, throughout the play.
And in Lear, it’s a tragedy. And I do believe it’s a classical tragedy; that his downfall comes from his own tragic flaw, whether it’s hubris, pride, narcissism, rashness. And also, because his stubbornness says “I will never go back on my vow. Once I have sworn, I am firm.” And that is why he banishes Kent, because, “you are asking me to go back on my vow, which I have never done in my life.”
TSC: There is this moment toward the end when it seems as if perhaps it could all end well, and then it doesn’t; and that flows entirely out of the beginning…
SM: Yes, it does….
TSC: …and it has to flow…
SM: Yes. But, you have to keep hoping. You have to keep hoping that it’s going to end well. Or even when they are in prison, that they are going to have a good life together.
They come to this lovely moment of appreciating and being grateful for the little things in life. The moments with the ones you love, rather than the pomp and the circumstance; and the fact that he has never noticed the homeless people on the streets around him. He had no common touch. He was out of touch, and it’s only through his cleansing in this storm, and through the hardships he suffers, that he begins to empathise. Because empathy was not one of his strong traits. So, yes, you keep hoping.
“He was out of touch, and it’s only through his cleansing in this storm, and through the hardships he suffers, that he begins to empathise.”
But finally, at the moment when he realises his humanity, and the fact that he is the same as the poor wretch, the poor forked animal; when he realises that there is no distinction between power and the disenfranchised, between king and pauper; when he realises that we are all on this journey toward death – we are born, we live, we die; once he realises that he shares that time on the planet – he is only alive for a very short period of time, and then it’s over.
And it’s a tragedy, because the innocent die. We don’t have, if one might say, the Christmas Carol. There are no second chances. Christmas did happen! You missed it!
And of course, they did turn it into a comedy in the 19th Century. They changed the ending of Lear. Cordelia married Edgar.
TSC: There’s some sense in that; but that could be a bit problematic with France…
SM: They probably cut France.
TSC: Julie said that you have a clear idea of what you don’t want to see in the sisters and in the Fool. It’s not that you’re telling the actors how they should be, but rather what you don’t want to see, such as stock villains in the sisters.
SM: I want them to be able to create their own characters; but I’m saying don’t feel that you have to be the evil villainess. Don’t feel that you have to be a presentational clown. I really want them to address any preconceptions that they feel they have to fulfil a function. And I think you can go too far, where you go…. how are these women capable of plucking out eyeballs and poisoning their sister? But that’s in the end what they do. So, that’s a given. But, we are all surprised by what we do in moments of great anxiety or stress, or when you’re in the throes of the madness of love or lust, as they are with Edmund.
TSC: In terms of surprising moments, Edmund shows us something at the end, which is different than what we might expect. Is there anything that Edmund has shown us up to that point that would suggest that he might be capable of reversing field?
SM: Yes. You mean of saying “Go save them”, at the last minute?
SM: I think the moment is when Gloucester says he’s [Edmund’s] been away nine years and shall away again. I don’t think Edmund knows that. I think he thought he was coming home. And then his father says you’re leaving again. And I think it’s how his father speaks about him, and his mother, in front of him. I think it’s insensitive.
TSC: You think that might have set him off on a course?
SM: Yes. But he also says that I was born the way I was, no matter what happens. I am who I am. And he has some of the same elements of Richard III, with his humour to the audience, and his appetite for gaining that which has been denied him, which is… equality with his brother. His older brother, who is not only that, for he [Edmund] was the bastard brother, who has no rights. And he says if I can’t get that land by birth, I’ll get it by wit. Because he has been treated as a second-class citizen, or not even a second-class citizen, all his life. He’s been acknowledged; but, you know, the dirty jokes have come up, mockeries made, that his mom was great in bed. If you think about a young man who is hearing his father say that, I think you have to take that into consideration.
And then there’s the moment when he actually says, “yet Edmund was beloved”, which is to say that, “those two sisters actually loved me, because they killed themselves for me. It wasn’t just lust. They actually loved me.” Maybe it was that real knowledge of love, which he sort of felt from his father, because his father says “I love him, as much as my son Edgar”, but the way he speaks of him says there’s a difference. And I think he’s felt that all his life. So, I think it’s a moment of somebody loved me, really loved me.
TSC: About the play itself: Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, says that we shouldn’t even stage Lear today.
SM: Too big.
TSC: Yes, that it’s beyond our reach, and we should leave it on the page. And yet, at the same time, we have Cordelia saying that words alone really don’t cut it. What is it about this play?
SM: The only perfect production is in your mind. Even when you read it, there are some things that you won’t understand by reading it, and you will only understand it when somebody else gives it an interpretation, and you go “Oh!” So even if it’s a really uneven production, you will hear things anew, because you are older. You are wiser, perhaps. Or you are at a different time in your life, so things will come to you, because you’ve heard them differently. You’ve been ready to receive them differently. When we watch Romeo and Juliet when we’re young, it’s all about the young love. But when you watch it as a parent, it’s all about the deaths of all these young people. It’s from a different angle.
Don’t bother doing it? Well, I guess that Harold Bloom has a perfect production in his head when he is reading it, and when he sees it… it always disappoints. I think that’s it. You have a real idea of a play you love, and it can’t help but disappoint, because you have this vision of a perfect play in your head.
I’ve seen so many productions of Shakespeare that I don’t have a perfect production in my head. I’ve seen fabulous Gloucesters and fabulous Fools, and a fabulous Cordelia in this production, and a fabulous Kent in that production, and you accumulate all those experiences, which is probably why you love going to see Shakespeare.
Even when you’re seeing a play two nights in a row from the same seat, you’re going to see and hear different things the second time than you did the first.
“The only perfect production is in your mind. Even when you read it, there are some things that you won’t understand by reading it, and you will only understand it when somebody else gives it an interpretation, and you go “Oh!” “
TSC: Everyone says that the role of Lear is the great mountain. The great challenge for an actor. Why is that? What is it about Lear?
Well, some people love Hamlet, because they would say it is the human, you know, becoming human, the human being. But I think Lear is about that as well, but it is about the young and the old. Even more focussed on the old, and the disconnects with the young.
And it is also, for a monarchist, one of the most socialist plays, I think, in the cannon. Talking about “Pomp expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” When he says, “I have taken too little care of this”. Meaning all those poor wretches who have nothing to shelter them from such winds. Such seasons as these. It’s recognising humanity. I think the play is a heart-breaking ode to mortality. It’s about death. People get old, and they lose their faculties, and they become more of whom they were before, or something cracks, and they have a shock to the system.
TSC: Is the challenge of playing Lear, and I know that you have played Lear recently… is it the range that is required?
SM: Yes, part of it is the range. Part of it is that you are an older actor and there a lot of lines, depending on which cut version you are using, but I think it also the stamina required. And I do think that if you are opening yourself up to the role, then you have to risk being un-liked, when you are egotistical and in command of power, and then you have to let all those cracks show. I think you have to reveal yourself and be truly vulnerable. And the language is so extraordinary; all the shifts and changes from one moment to another are quite extraordinary and delineated. And as an actor, you always have to find out why the next thing. Why do I say this? Why do I say that?
It’s my favourite. I was Cordelia back more than three decades ago, back with Douglas Campbell, and haven’t been in the play for 30 some years, until this last January. It’s a gift to be in this play.
TSC: As a director, how is it working with both Equity [unionised professionals] and non-Equity [non-unionised apprenticing] actors?
SM: I like it. Because it is part teaching. It is part passing on information, or gleaned experience, to younger people. Even if it’s technical, like in this thrust space [where we are staging King Lear] you have to shift your body so that people can see through here; or you don’t have to stand and stay still… you keep your body alive in 360, so that we’re not just planted and not changing; or the fact that your voice has to cover this space, and if someone has just shouted and you come in really quiet, we won’t hear you, because our ears won’t adapt. All those technical things, but also about the verse, about Shakespeare’s language. Why the next word? Why that word? And the poetry of it, the antithesis, the consonants you use. The verse: what’s the iambic hit? Where is the momentum moving towards? How many full stops do you have? Do you have one? Do you have none? It’s all those details.
TSC: Rehearsals must be a fascinating adventure. Especially working with text and voice.
It is in the text, the clarity. I learned that from [the voice coaches] Kristin Linklater and Patsy Rodenburg. That was part of my early training at Stratford [Ontario], when I was a member of the Shakespeare 3 company. But voice is something that you always have to keep working at. When I was in school, in theatre school, we had old school teaching. It was variety in pitch, pace, volume. And it’s a very technical thing. You have to be very attuned to shifts, because you are there to arrest the ear, really, especially with classical plays. It is really not a visual, as much as an aural, exciting adventure.
TSC: If we might close with a final question: Have these experiences with acting and directing Lear this year helped you see anything differently, even though you already have so much experience?
SM: Oh yes. You always have actors doing things that are fresh and new, that you hadn’t thought of. You hear lines differently, or you hear a delivery of a line that you never heard before. It keeps shape-shifting. And I never tire of the play. You know, in this production, things have made me laugh that I have been surprised by.
I think things do change. I mean it is a great fable, but Shakespeare’s plots aren’t why you go to see Shakespeare, really. The plots aren’t the thing. You want to see real people going through their dilemmas, because then the audience says: “You are me, and I am you. And we are not alone, because somebody wrote this situation and these people in it centuries ago, and I understand it perfectly.” So, for better or worse, we haven’t changed all that much.
TSC: I get that when reading Plato.
SM: Yes, well look at Plato. The cave that the Duke in As You Like It goes to is Plato’s cave. He goes in, to come out a philosopher king, and he does. He finds sanctuary in the woods, he goes into a cave. Why a cave? Shakespeare knew his Plato.
And it is often that you go to Nature, to become enlightened. Lear does. Mind you, it’s the harshness of Nature. The stripping away. There’s nothing kind. Except, there are the remedial herbs of Cordelia, those healing all-blessed secrets. You unpublished virtues of the earth. That is the healing power of Nature. As is music and harmony. They’re all healers. But Nature is the source. Like Prospero on his island. Or you go to the sanctuary of the forest, where you’re not in the false hierarchy of a court. You find out who you really are, when you have to struggle to survive.
* Interview led by William French, a member of the Board of Directors of The Shakespeare Company.
Wednesday 14 March 2018 @ Vertigo Theatre