In February 2021, Mill Productions launched a series of five short videos on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ for senior cycle school students studying for Leaving Certificate English. Recorded at the dlr Mill Theatre in Dundrum at the end of 2020, the director and three actors looked at key scenes from the play, focusing on analysis, rehearsal and performance.
Almost one year earlier, in March of 2020, our production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was shut down in its final week to comply with the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our plans for a production of ‘King Lear’ in the autumn had to be shelved. With the restrictions continuing throughout 2020 and into 2021, our theatre remained dark and all our programmes were cancelled. So Mill Productions decided to find a different way to present our work on the play to school students. We took parts of the play and brought cameras into the rehearsal room to record how we bring scenes from page to stage. In each of the five parts, the director and the three actors analysed a selected scene, considered different ways of presenting it in rehearsal, and finally performed the scene on stage.
While there is no proof that Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a plague, two recorded events suggest that he probably did. One is that King James I attended a premiere of the play on St Stephen’s Day in 1606, which means Shakespeare was, most likely, writing it in that year. The other is that a significant plague, during the summer of 1606, closed the Globe and all other theatres in London. In fact, between 1603 and 1613, theatres in the city were often closed more than half of the time, because of recurring outbreaks of bubonic plague. This was even before the Great Plague of London, which lasted for 18 months from 1665 to 1666 and killed 100,000 people, 25% of the city’s population.
Viewed from within our own pandemic-imposed isolation, and knowing that Shakespeare lived and worked through a protracted period of plague, we can understand what may have made ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ one of the darkest and most tragic plays he wrote. His home was in Stratford-upon-Avon, but his working life was in London, where he had lodgings on Silver Street in the Cripplegate area of the city. When the plague imposed restrictions on the city, the streets were empty, the shops were closed, and there was an endless procession of funerals to the nearby church. But, just like today, life went on – and as director and actors note in these five recorded sessions, the world of the play takes in all around it – the light and the dark – and even the dark humour.
The King Lear Project was developed and directed by Geoff O’Keeffe, and produced by Karen Carleton.
The actors who worked through the rehearsal process and performed the selected scenes are Michael James Ford as ‘Lear’; Niamh McAllister as ‘Cordelia’, ‘Goneril’ and ‘The Fool’; and Matthew O’Brien as ‘Kent’, ‘Edmund’, ‘Albany’ and ‘Gloucester’.
The Narrator is Declan Brennan.
The creative team for the performances included Lighting Designer Kris Mooney and Sound Designer Declan Brennan.
The video production was recorded and edited by JACL Productions.