The story of Shakespeare’s King Lear is an epic one; a king driven mad and a family at war, as the very earth around them slips away between moments of joy and tragedy.
A play this massive needs a theatre company talented enough to handle it, and Richmond’s Quill Theatre aims to be more than up for the challenge. Armed with the VMFA’s Leslie Cheek Theater, a killer cast and an equally talented back stage crew, when King Lear opens this week, it’s sure to blow Richmonder’s minds and break a few hearts as well.
“Shakespeare tells everyone’s story,” said Jan Powell, Quill Theatre’s Artistic Director and the Director for Lear, about the Bard’s ability to tell timeless stories that continue to affect those who see them. “Where ever you are in that family dynamic you’ll recognize yourself in the play and realize you are not alone in having to deal with this.”
For Powell, the collapse of King Lear himself is the strongest narrative in the play. From start to finish, the mental and physical ability of our tragic lead is witnessed by the audience as well as those on stage.
“[Lear] is a stunningly realistic depiction of family dynamics and how we depend on the love and trust of each other,” Powell said. “How quickly things can began to fall apart…. the relationships between the elderly head of the family and the children who are trying to cope with the challenges of having an elderly parent who has all the authority, intelligence and they are losing it.”
“How do you deal with this?” Powell asks, putting the impetus on the viewer to try and understand what Lear’s daughters go through, even as they turn to manipulations of their own.
“The daughters aren’t evil from the beginning,” she said. “They are irritated, challenged, troubled by their parent who is starting to act irrationally and then it all spirals down… as the whole family structure starts to shatter because no-one is able to manage this elderly parent.”
While Lear’s illness is never specifically given a name, the common interpretation of the role leads to a character wrecked by some form of Alzheimer’s disease, including dementia and physical degradation. “Its all true to life about the issues we deal with as we get older,” Powell said. “We are all the time saying [on set] ‘I just went through this with my grandmother.’”
This powerful depiction of Lear couldn’t be left to just any actor in town, and as the production began to take legs Powell had only one person in mind to fill the character’s shoes, local legend Joe Inscoe.
“It was one of the most amazing emails I ever received,” said Inscoe about his feelings after getting asked by Powell to the don the crown of Lear.
“No actor turns down Lear… but it actually took me four days to decide,” he joked.
Inscoe pointed to the heavy weight an actor must burden when taking on the tragic role. Lear’s fall is both phyiscally and emotionally demanding and at the age of 64, the actor wasn’t sure he was up to it.
“I figured I’ve done a couple like this in recent years, knowing all the time I couldn’t turn down Lear, that’s just crazy.” he said.
Once he accepted the role, Inscoe took the months between then and now to research the role, reading critical interpretations and interviews with other actors who played him. “Where other actors had found the difficulty,” he said, interested him most, pointing out the many choices the role can allow an actor to make.
He read the play over and over and only came up with more and more questions, but he said Powell and Dramaturgy Coordinator Mac McDaniel both helped him weed through the possibilities.
“This was one of the first roles where I really worked hard to learn lines before rehearsal,” he joked, noting just how committed he was to the piece.
In the end, Inscoe took a lot of influence from what he experienced as his own father drifted away towards the end of his life.
Stricken with Parkinson’s which involved some mild dementia, the actor inadvertently studied his father’s illness and quirks during those last few months of his life.
“His amazement with little things now and again is something I find myself doing in the later scenes of Lear,” he said. “I prick my finger at one point [in the play] and Lear says ‘I will not swear that these are my hands, lets see’ and he pricks his finger and says ‘I can feel this pin prick” and I can so clearly see how my dad would do that and be rather amazed.”
Beyond his personal connection, Inscoe also spent some time with his brother, a head of Chaplin Services at Westminster Canterbury here in RVA, as he put together a presentation on Alzheimer’s. From there the actor picked up a number of insights from viewing and researching, specifically details on the degradation of spiritual, physical and emotional health.
But Inscoe was wise to realize the Bard himself obviously knew a thing or two about fading in old age.
“Shakespeare was remarkably accurate in his observations of progressive dementia,” he said as he read over the script. “In my mind, Lear, in the first scene, already has some awareness that his mind is changing and there are some clear indications that these aren’t the wisest decisions for his kingdom he’s making.”
“There’s a steady arc, written into the text, from one scene to the next. The symptoms become a little more obvious and severe so that the character we have in the final scene is so far from the character we began with,” Inscoe said. “And that’s one of the things that makes this role such a challenge and such a joy. To explore so much across these scenes.”
Powell has been acutely aware of Inscoe’s devotion to the role; she even had trouble detailing her favorite scene of his without shedding a tear during our interview.
“He can’t believe that she’s not dead,” she said retelling a death scene which puts a lifeless body in the fading kings’ arms. “It’s the recognition of her being dead that happens over and over and over again… The re-injury, watching Insco’s compassion, his desire for her, his overwhelming love for her and realizing that she’s dead, and it happens several times.”
“It’s just the most gorgeous thing,” she said. “It is a tragedy, and sad things happen, but the performance is magnificent.”
Beyond Inscoe’s performance and Powell’s direction, Quill Theatre has some other surprises in store for folks who make it out this weekend.
In keeping with the play’s epic nature, an equally epic stage design has been constructed by Tennessee Dixon.
“She is an artist and she works with the space that she has and thinks of it in a kind of environmental way,” Powell said. “She can transform the overall feeling of the stage so that it fits with the space that it’s in.”
Dixon did the set design for Stupid Fucking Bird at RTP late last year, and that involved a unique almost ‘theatre-in-the-round’ build with the audience sitting in close to and around the action.
The final concept for Lear’s set, according to Powell, takes heavily from the text and examines how nature is eternal and man is ephemeral.
“Man is fighting to make his place in nature,” she said. “It feels like a magnificently desolate place.”
Get excited for this grand production when it opens at the VMFA’s Lessie Cheek Theatre this week and runs through Late April.