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In 2002 I was asked if I would like to direct an excerpt from a Shakespeare play for some theatre design students at Wimbledon School of Art. I have no interest in Shakespeare and know little of his work. I read three of his plays for ‘O’ level in 1960 then another three for university three years later then forty years passed and I didn’t think about him apart from feeling annoyed whenever I thought about him. The prospect of directing an excerpt filled me with horror. I find the language impenetrable and the way in which it is generally performed ridiculous. I decided to write my own version of a scene from Lear, chosen by the students.

Bernadette Russell played Regan. In rehearsal – we had eight hours for rehearsal – I asked her to improvise in a highly exaggerated manner Regan’s response to Lear’s request for a loving tribute. Bernadette has the capacity to produce, with the force of one speaking in tongues, an extraordinarily vivid stream of images arranged around a given theme or objective. On this occasion she launched into a lurid and demented rapid-fire monologue that outlined the privations to which she was prepared to submit for her foolish father. I took notes eagerly and used nearly all of her material to shape Regan’s long speeches.

The final speech, in which Regan describes herself eating her way into the body of the King of France, felt like a natural extension of the abandon that Bernadette had established in the first speech and represents something I’d always wanted to try to write about.

It can be argued that a strong, readily visualisable narrative is out of place in theatre dialogue. The argument, one that I have frequently made myself, would be that theatre is a visual medium, not a branch of radio. In the latter medium it is permissible and necessary to describe that which cannot be seen but when performance spaces, rather than imagined spaces, frame performance then enactment rather than anecdote must prevail. However, notwithstanding the bacchanalian ritualism of the Viennese Aktionists, who routinely writhed in the warm intestines of freshly slaughtered cattle in their pursuit of the modern
Dionysian, it would have been, in this instance, of questionable value to literalise, by means of ingenious theatrical design, something that could only be technically impressive and would, more importantly, simply break the flow of a scene. Regan’s cartoonish excursion into meat puppetry is, after all, only something she would attempt if anyone were to doubt her dedication to her Dad.

I also asked Chloe Billington, playing Cordelia, to improvise the reasons why she quite liked her father. We had decided that Cordelia, while being unreasonably pressured by Lear, was also experiencing adolescent ennui to a degree that warranted her quoting directly from Liam Lynch’s excellently nerdy song ‘United States of Whatever’, whose first stanza runs thus:

I went down to the beach and saw Kiki

She was, like, all “ehhhh”

And I was, like, “Whatever!”

Followed by the chorus:

Cuz this is my

United States of Whatever!

And this is my

United States of Whatever!

And this is my

United States of Whatever!

Chloe’s response to the exercise entirely informs her speech to Lear.

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