A new approach to King Lear (well, new at the time anyway)

by Ian Pike | 1 September 2016

Back in 1989 a group of eager, young, final year drama students decided to be more proactive in their search for work and set up their own theatre company. Keen to do more experimental work than the productions they were currently appearing in – Man of Mode, Guys and Dolls, Abigail’s Party etc – they began with a production of Steven Berkoff’s Greek. A production that no one can remember much about, including most members of the cast or audience apart from that it was loud, angry, bloody and probably contained a fair amount of full frontal male nudity. Fuelled by youthful confidence, the company then decided to take a couple of shows up to the Edinburgh fringe; a devised piece and a late night cabaret. What the audience thought of either was hard to ascertain as absolutely nobody came to see them. The members of the company, at the time called Floating Bubble theatre (it being the generic name the head of speech at the drama school gave all experimental theatre companies) decided to research further. Finding an old Edinburgh actor in the Fringe club, they asked what needed to be done to get an audience when up against such stiff competition. The answer was apparently simple: Shakespeare. Tourists will always go and see a Shakespeare. Oh, and make it different, get an afternoon slot so you’re not competing with the big hitters in the evening, cut the text right down so it’s not too long and put a provocative picture on the poster.

Taking him at his word, the very first production with an actress playing King Lear was born. Of course the publicity said it was an exploration of the theme of vulnerability and that the reversal of roles in casting was in fact a feminist statement but the truth is that it was born out of a desire to be different in order to sell tickets.

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