Julie Orton, playing both Cordelia and Fool in The Shakespeare Company’s upcoming King Lear, very generously agreed to answer our questions, in the midst of rehearsals.
TSC: You’re into your second week of rehearsals with Seana McKenna, and you’re playing both Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia and Lear’s Fool. How’s that going?
JO: Seana is primarily, for the majority of her career has been, an actor first. So, Seana as a director is fascinating and really exciting for fellow actors, because she jumps right into the action; and so, when she’s giving a direction, or when she’s really talking about character and relationships, she gets this close to your face. And you have private conversations with Seana McKenna about, “Ok, so what are you saying? And what are you saying to this person, or what are you going to say back?” So that the layers that, already at the end of week one, every character has, because of those intimate conversations that we’re able to have with our director, which doesn’t happen a lot… It’s really a privilege.
So yeah, we’re sort of in the “our brains are full, and now we have to learn how to walk and talk” part of our rehearsal process. And with the experience that Seana has, and with how many Lears she has seen, she has a very clear idea of what she doesn’t want to see, or what she has seen too much, and a lot of that is filtered through to the sisters, a lot of that is to the Fool.
“..we’re sort of in the “our brains are full, and now we have to learn how to walk and talk” part of our rehearsal process.”
TSC: To the Fool?
JO: Yeah, I think she has seen lots of fools, lots of Shakespearian fools, and not just Lear, but across the gamut. And I think there are certain things that she’s…, you know they work, but she just doesn’t want to see them. And that’s valuable for me, who has played a couple of fools and seen a handful of fools.
TSC: We just had a vaudevillian fool in Theatre Calgary’s Twelfth Night [in which Julie played Fabienne], which is very different for Feste.
JO: Yes, very different, and it fit the style of that show so perfectly, and it was so funny, but that is what she does not want. She’s interested in a more traditional court fool. A little oddball, who has been with the King since before Cordelia was born. But also King Lear’s Fool is unique, in that, as with his [Shakespeare’s] later fools, he’s really melancholic, and he’s very… these aren’t knee-slapping jokes.
TSC: He’s the least funny fool, isn’t he? He’s not even trying to be funny.
JO: Yes, that’s not the point.
TSC: He’s putting a message across.
JO: And he’s relentless about it. In the first scene, it’s not about: Here, I’m going to give you some hard truths. It’s about: I’m going to give you some hard truths fourteen times in a row. Because I [the Fool] am also pissed at him [Lear].
He’s an exciting fool to play, because some fools can come off as almost apathetic to what’s happening around them. They comment, they make a joke. But Lear’s Fool is so greatly invested in this story. He has such a loyalty to the man, but also he has such a deep fondness for Cordelia that he’s indelibly tied to all of this. And that’s an exciting thing to play. I think a lot times there’s pressure with fools to come up with a totally unique stand-up comedian, and that pressure has been lifted in this.
Obviously, it’s not the function of this fool.
So, it’s been great to talk with Seana about that, because, again, she has such a clear idea of what she doesn’t want to see in the Fool. She’s more interested in where the magic lies in the Fool, where that balance place is.
So, we’re working hard with that, and also, you know, I get the great privilege of the juxtaposition of Cordelia as well. But they are uniquely tied, because they are both truth tellers. And whereas Cordelia gets incredibly punished for telling the truth, the Fool is all-licensed, and he can sit there and stare Lear in the eye for a 15-minute scene and knock him down. So, it’s an interesting double side of the coin, these two characters that, on the page are completely different, but actually are intrinsically linked to each other, and have a lot of the same intentions.
TSC: How do you think they are intrinsically linked, other than being truth tellers? Or is it just that?
JO: The loyalty and the deep connection and love to Lear is what binds them. Whereas Cordelia has a sort of familial love…. But when she tells the truth it is not just for Lear’s own good, but it’s, it really is, part of who Cordelia is. She has a little bit of, or maybe a lot of the pride that Lear has, and that pride, although it comes out in different ways… but that really fuels that first scene, where she refuses to play the game, and she’s insulted by it.
TSC: What’s behind the silence of Cordelia?
JO: Well, it’s an insulting proposition, and Cordelia does have that pride. She is not this… I’m not interested in playing a Cordelia who is a sort of an infallible angel character, because she is prideful as well. And she’s impulsive, and the decision to stay silent is an impulsive decision. She could so easily play that game. And, you know, like he says, he will divide it in three, and they will get the biggest size according to the most love, but he reserves the biggest one for Cordelia to speak last. He’s assuming that she’s going to do it.
As I move forward, it’s interesting to find the things that bind the Fool and Cordelia, and also their tremendous differences. The freedom afforded to the Fool. But the tremendous bond accorded to Cordelia. We are just starting to touch on the end of the play, when they [Cordelia & Lear] are finally reunited… and these moments are so incredibly beautiful, when you look as these two people who are prideful, and who are impulsive, and who are emotional creatures. Yeah, I think it’s much more interesting than having a Cordelia who is patient and incredibly thoughtful, as if she’s thought this all through. She hasn’t. She makes decisions on the fly, just like everyone else.
TSC: What do you think about Cordelia and Fool being played by a single actor?
JO: I think there are mirror images of the other character as we go through the play. And especially in the relationship to Lear there are things that ring true; so, I think there is a logic to it, and there is actually a tremendous melancholy to it, as well, that we are certainly exploring. That’s how I’m approaching both characters. And it’s very illuminating. I see the story in a different way than if I was just playing Cordelia, because I would leave and then come back with half an hour to go. It’s a tremendous gift actually.
TSC: Ted Hughes, in his book on Shakespeare’s use of myth, “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being”, suggests that Cordelia represents, in the mythic structure, Lear’s soul, which he has banished from himself. Even her name “Couer de Lear”, or Heart of Lear, suggests that.
Hughes asserts that it is no accident that she and the Fool do not appear together, for the Fool represents the absent Cordelia, speaking what Cordelia could not speak. And then the Fool simply vanishes when his work is done, when Lear is being reborn, and Cordelia can return.
How does that seem to you, as an actor playing both roles? Do you feel like Cordelia and the Fool are somehow Lear’s soul outside of him… a banished soul speaking to him? Does that seem real to you?
JO: Yes. Absolutely. That resonates deeply, and especially, as you mentioned, there is a reason why Cordelia disappears and the Fool takes over, and then it gets to a point where the Fool’s function is over. He’s no longer needed. And then, just like that, Cordelia reappears. I absolutely agree. It’s why I think you see the decline of Lear start to happen so rapidly, at a certain point. Because he has been without his soul. And his other soul caretaker is giving him hard truths, giving him tough love, but he can’t pull off that part, that Cordelia could. So, it’s an interesting journey that’s mirrored with what happens in Lear.
TSC: What about Cordelia’s relationship to her sisters? You and Myla Southward (who is playing Lear’s middle daughter Regan) were once the cousins Rosalind and Celia, respectively, in TSC’s As You Like It. How would you compare Rosalind to Cordelia? You both have overthrown fathers and banishment…
JO: Yes, banishment is the running theme. It is. And also that impulsiveness, thinking quickly, like even when you find Cordelia at the end of the play, she is leading that army, and she makes very quick decisions. And Rosalind is of course the same, and the joy of As You Like It is that you get to see Rosalind make those quick decisions on her feet, and deal with the fallout of them. I’m grateful to play both, actually, because they’re different in a lot of ways, their circumstances are certainly different, but there are characteristics that I believe bind them, or maybe that’s just me bringing my own stuff into it. And as you mentioned, the relationship to Celia (Myla) was a great thing to explore, and that became the love of AYLI, I mean that was the love story. And this is so opposite in King Lear.
These are sisters…. Regan is sadistic, and Myla is having a delicious time of that. And then you have this fascinating relationship with Goneril [the oldest sister] as well.
Another thing Seana is not interested in is seeing stock villains in the sisters. Because that’s not interesting. There is real hurt and resentment, especially on the part of Goneril, that I think is completely valid and completely justifiable. How she acts on it, not so much; but I think the driving force for a lot of what she does is completely understandable, and Daniela Vlaskalic who plays the role is rooting it in some real honest roots, as she approaches a relationship with her father and a relationship with her sisters, whom she has always been pitted against, and it’s really kind of a heart-breaking journey. I have seen Lear a couple of times, and I missed out on that a little bit. It’s so easy to play them as villains, because of what they do, the actions that they do. But there are some really interesting roots being planted for the two of them. And Myla as well… to play that middle sister Regan who never gets asked to speak first. That petulance. She’s finding it, and it’s exciting to watch, and it makes it all the more terrifying, because you can identify with it.
“…it’s really kind of a heart-breaking journey. I have seen Lear a couple of times, and I missed out on that a little bit.”
TSC: And this play is all happening so fast too… With TSC’s Artistic Producer Haysam Kadri setting a two-hour limit on plays, this is especially a pressure-cooker Lear.
JO: Yes, it is a pressure-cooker Lear, and it has to be, because of those two hours…. And also, as a way not to get bogged down in the despair. Because you could. It’s a trap that we could fall in to, the complete despair; but there are real people, real motivations, and, exactly, those impulses that propel the story forward; and then it’s fun to watch characters have to deal with the impulsive decisions that they make. Whatever is going to happen, it’s fun to watch them having to deal with that. And Regan is a good example of that, because all the things that she decides to do in the moment are jarring, and oftentimes violent. To watch a character go from who she is at the beginning to where she ends up… that’s fun to watch.
The trap of Cordelia is that she doesn’t get all that. She doesn’t get to show people what happens in the interim [when she’s off stage], so those last couple of scenes at the end with Lear are sacred; and that’s what we’re working on right now, and it’s hard work. It’s hard to disappear for two hours or an hour and a half and reappear and be firmly planted, but I think it’s integral. Otherwise how do you end?
TSC: Is this making you think about anything differently that you would want to go back and revisit? Is this play changing the way you think about things?
JO: You know I got the opportunity to play Feste in university, when I was such a young performer. I was bogged down in the pressure of turning Feste into the comic relief of the play [Twelfth Night], which is a comedy anyway and doesn’t need it. Anyway, the more that I have researched on Shakespeare’s fools, the more I realise that Feste serves a very similar function to the Fool in Lear. He’s a deliverer of hard truths, and he is all-licensed. Olivia says as much in the first scene when he finally reappears after however long he has been gone. She says there is no fault in an allowed fool. And so I think that the function and the beauty of a truth teller in a piece like this is… it’s a fascinating story to dive into. I think that if I could go back and do Feste again, I would do Feste differently. But that was my first Shakespeare fool, so I don’t know what I was doing.
TSC: Is there any one book or source that has really opened up King Lear, or Shakespeare in general, for you?
JO: I was reading a book that Tyrell Crews lent me, when we were doing Twelfth Night, just now: “The Meaning of Shakespeare”, by Harold C. Goddard. The author basically breaks down every single Shakespearian play, and it’s a short, concise analysis of it. As an introduction to the piece it was invaluable to me.… It touched upon some of the broader themes, but it really focused on the family drama, the relationships. Because for an actor, or at least for me, I’ll just talk for me… I need to understand it here [heart]. I can have all the context in the world here [head], but if I don’t understand the relationships between the people, and the motivations for what they say and do, then I won’t care about the play. I won’t care. And it will be very hard for me to do it, because I won’t understand. I’m more interested in that split second before Cordelia breaks away and says “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent”. I’m more interested in what happens in that split-second moment that makes her do that. So, as far as research, the Arden [the Arden Shakespeare series of annotated play texts] is sort of in everyone’s back pocket. But I read the play, I do a character history for myself….
“So, I fill in a history of the sisters and what growing up must have been like for the three of them. I fill in a history of the Fool.”
TSC: What’s a character history?
JO: You draw upon the things that are present in the play, and then all the things that aren’t you sort of fill in for yourself. So, I fill in a history of the sisters and what growing up must have been like for the three of them. I fill in a history of the Fool. How long the Fool has been a part of this family. Have I known the Fool my whole life? Do I have a different mother than the other two? Maybe. I do all of this stuff and then I show up and say this is what I’m playing with, and either the director says great, or that doesn’t really make sense, or that doesn’t work… So that’s what I do to introduce myself to the characters. And never once judge a decision they make, because that’s the fastest way to do an imitation of something, rather than actually embody something.
King Lear is playing in The Studio at Vertigo Theatre from March 15 until March 31, 2018.
* Production photos by Benjamin Laird