Category Archives: drama

Directing King Lear, Part One

This will be the first in a series – an irregular series – over the next eighteen months on putting together and directing a play.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine confirmed something we’d discussed some months back: that he wanted me to direct him in King Lear.

This is the third time over nearly a decade that we’ve attempted to get a production of King Lear organised together, but on each previous occasion events have conspired to prevent us; this time, however, there’s nothing in either of our lives likely to be an obstacle to actually making it happen. We have a play, a venue – the King’s Theatre, Southsea, and a time – November 2013.

The company is called One Off, and was started by David Lippiett because he was frustrated at not being able to get ‘classic’ drama – Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, and so on – on to the amateur stage in Portsmouth. David knows just about everyone on the amateur drama scene in the Portsmouth area, and his simple rule was to decide what play to do, and then pick the best people he knew for the cast. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a handful of One Off productions, and in each one I’ve felt very lucky to be among a people who know their craft and art so well; it gives a huge level of comfort to know that everyone knows what they are doing and is going to be able to pull you out of a hole if necessary.

Our first step will be putting together a cast for the production: David (who’ll be playing King Lear, but is also the producer) has some ideas, as do I, as to people we’d like to have on board, and we’ll be meeting in a couple of weeks time to see how well those lists marry up, and how we fill the gaps. Then of course, once we start contacting people to ask them, we’ll find out some people are unavailable because of commitments to other plays or for ‘real life’ reasons; or unwilling to be in the production, or to take the part we want them to play – we’ll try to persuade people, but in the end it will be up to them. So there will be more holes to fill, even before we get to the start of rehearsals (by which time we’ll probably have lost a couple of extra people to unforeseen circumstances).

Meanwhile, I’m going to be working on a script. King Lear runs to nearly 3,300 lines – that’s roughly 3 hours 40 minutes performance time, so cuts have to be made, and sizeable ones, to get it down to a reasonable running time for a modern audience, and theatre, and a cast that would like a post-performance drink: rule 1 of directing – give your actors time to get to the bar after the curtain’s come down, and they’ll be halfway to being on your side before the first minute of rehearsal.

Here’s a funny fact I’ve learned from directing and acting in Shakespeare’s plays over the last 25 years: 15 lines equals 1 minute. A friend once laughed when I told her that my production of The Taming of The Shrew would finish at 10:17; we were within 1 minute every night, except the performance when the bar as overcrowded and the interval was extended by five minutes – we finished at 22:22. Overall, it doesn’t matter how much business you throw in, how the actors deliver their lines (as long as they do deliver them, of course), or how the production is blocked (i.e. how the actors move around, on and off the stage):

15 lines on the page = 1 minute on the stage

So if we begin at 7.45, and finish at 10.30, with a twenty minute interval, that leaves us with 165 minutes of performance time, or 2,475 lines. So I need to cut around twenty percent of the play to get it to a reasonable length; a big job when you’re messing with Shakespeare’s lines, and one I’ll come back to in a later instalment.

What I do first – don’t laugh – is write the play. I start with a base text, from one of the published versions of Shakespeare’s plays – and literally retype the whole play, to create my electronic text. The first positive point about this is that once I have made the cuts I have a script which I can email to or print for each actor, without everyone having to buy a copy of my chosen text and strike through the cuts, so everyone is literally on the same page.

The second and more important positive is that this forces me to look at every single word of the script, every punctuation mark, every stage direction. Sometimes while doing this, a word or a line will jar, or will spark a thought about how to present hat on stage, and I’ll note that for later consideration. It creates a familiarity with the text which is invaluable when deciding how to cut.

Once I’ve developed the base text, I’ll go through again comparing it with other texts that I have to hand; in the house I have the following complete works: a facsimile of the First Folio, the Norton Shakespeare, Oxford Shakespeare, a Nelson Doubleday edition from the 60s, the Irving Shakespeare works of 1897, and the Malone edition of 1786; and my single play King Lear texts include the New Penguin, Arden 2nd and 3rd editions, and Cambridge. That makes ten texts; some of these are very close (or even identical) to each other, but by the end of the comparison I’ll have read my base text in detail four or five times, paying particular attention to anywhere I’ve made notes, and adding more notes on punctuation or textual differences as I go.

Then, I’ll start work on cutting the script down to size…

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