By Alan Edwards
Some background first. Warren Mitchell replied to an invitation from Joe MacColum in 1977 that the role of Shylock — or the play did not interest him all that much but King Lear did. We took it from there and scheduled the play for 1978.
I met Warren a couple of times in Sydney and talked generally about the play whilst he was in Australia in 1977. Afterwards we corresponded by casette.
He had seen the famous Buzz Goodbody production for the RSC and been tremendously impressed by its theatrical vitality and clear story-line. This version had been heavily cut and ran only about two hours.
I knew from our previous experience in presenting Shakespeare that there were certain prejudices to be overcome amongst our audiences — particularly the schools: Shakespeare was boring because he was incomprehensible; he had no relevance to today; the plays were ‘too long’.
So I was very sympathetic to Warren’s ideas about a cut version of the play which would retain the basic story-line but lose many of the side issues and proliferations. He sent me Buzz Goodbody’s script and suggested we use it. I must here acknowledge the tremendous debt I owe her as I incorporated many of her cuts in our final production. Roughly one-third of the text had gone. Of course in such a truncated version many of the speeches that belonged to original characters were now given to other people. This created some problems in rehearsal where some of the cast felt their characters had been changed, but we finally agreed that our production was ‘a version of King Lear’ and that reference to the original text would only hinder us: we played what we had.
The story-line was clear and precise. The play flowed logically into two parts: from the majestic ritual of the opening scene through to the horrific blinding of Gloucester as Part One and from Edgar’s entrance “Yet better thus and known to be condemned” to the final tragic end.
Then we looked at the language in detail. Whenever a word or phrase was obscure we tried to find a modern equivalent. Thus Kent’s “She summoned up her meiny, straight took horse” became “She summoned up her household, straight took horse”. Sometimes, particularly with the Fool and Poor Tom it was difficult and on occasion we left the original. Sometimes inspirations struck. One delight was a change from the Fool’s “If a man’s brains were in his heels were he not in danger of kibes” to “If a man’s brains were in his heels were he not in danger of chilbrains” and the pun got a laugh at every performance.
In discussion with Peter Cooke, the designer, we agreed about the production concept: we were after an environment rather than a set, we needed clothes not costumes and we didn’t want either set or costumes to pin the play down to a specific, identifiable period. The result was a heavily textured flooring on three levels with a monolithic ‘door’ at the back, and clothes made of skins, felt and fur that looked as if they had been stitched by hand.
The play had sound/music specially composed by Jim Cotter much of it emanating from a synthesiser. I wanted to avoid that (to me) dreadful off stage trumpet call sound that one so often hears. So much of the sound was slightly distorted.
“What is my action?” became the key question during the early rehearsal period. In solving it Warren was an inspiration not only insofar as his own role was concerned but in helping others to clarify their objectives. We laboured long and hard over some scenes, particularly the most difficult ‘mad ’ scenes. Fortunately I had Robert Kingham as Assistant Director and he was able to take other actors off and rehearse them elsewhere. Nonetheless the scarey joke was being bandied about “we’re doing Act Two as a programme note”. It was slow, grinding work.
Eventually this side of the work began to be mastered and we introduced other problems: handling the language, verse speaking, selective emphasis. I set as a goal William Poel’s “Twenty lines a minute” and this without gabbling or hurrying. We proved it could be done. There were no pauses between scenes, as characters exited in one scene the new ones entered and the text was picked up. We tried to make the play flow and not let the audience “off the hook”.
Then came the run-throughs with costumes and props and the dress rehearsal period. Even at this late stage we were changing — cutting odd lines, putting back others, changing blocking. But under Warren’s leadership there was excitement in the air and a feeling we were ‘on to something’.
David Read did some beautiful lighting, Joe MacColum harangued the company about speech generally and audibility particularly. John Humphreys wasn’t too happy about the fight scenes, the swords kept bending, certain costumes didn’t fit or were “hell to wear” the smoke gun wouldn’t work — it was the usual story.
But it finally came together.
Did we achieve all we set out to do? No. So we’re all looking forward to remounting the production for the Seymour Centre in Sydney in September. But it was a success with our audiences, particularly the 5,000 school kids who saw it, it got good notices and gave all of us who worked on it a tremendous sense of involvement. I think we all learned a lot.