Best of Spring

Gregory Doran and the Royal Shakespeare Company Settle In to a Thorny “King Lear” at BAM

“Just because it ends tragically, don’t play it that way,” the director says of his open-minded approach to the Bard’s portrait of madness


Gregory Doran has the rumpled, bewhiskered aspect of the English teacher you totally crushed on in college. That accent, those dry jokes — ’tis to swoon! Alas, he’s taken. Since 1987, Doran and the acclaimed actor Antony Sher have been partners on stage and off, their names inseparable from the Royal Shakespeare Company, which Doran has run since 2012. Sher has achieved some of his most legendary roles there, such as the rock-star Richard III skittering about on gothic crutches in 1984. More recently, Sher played a seedily posh Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the BAM Harvey. The latter production was directed by Doran, who now brings his King Lear to the Harvey (through April 29), also starring Sher as the mad old king yelling at storm clouds. In addition to running the massive RSC at its home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Doran has worked to diversify casting and bolster new playwriting, while also constantly testing the canon. He sat down recently for dinner to chat with the Voice about Lear, bowdlerized Bard, and the negotiations of living with your leading man.

I’m resisting the urge to make a joke about meeting the Pope of Shakespeare.

[Laughs] Pope Gregory.

Was he one of the nice ones?

He was the Great. Pope Gregory I.

Two years ago, King and Country was here at the Harvey. For this armchair Shakespearean, it was heaven to see the “Henriad” together — Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V.

It was a marvelous thing to do, in particular in 2016.

It was the year of Brexit and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

We toured it that year. We’d begun the Richard II in the end of ’13 and the Henry IVs in ’14 and then Henry V we were doing in ’15, because it was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. And then for 2016, we brought them all back together. We revived them at the Barbican, took them to China, brought them here. I had wanted to look at the plays, not in what was a RSC tradition, this de rigueur thing where you put the cycle together. I felt that meant you were “tetralogizing” them, rather than seeing them each as individual plays. Richard II is a great lyric tragedy, whereas the Henry IVs are so completely different from Henry V. I wanted to be able to look at them individually and, then, do the tetralogizing bit that meant you put them all together.

Were those four plays uncut?

No. I always do a cut knowing that a Shakespeare play goes through about 900 lines an hour if spoken trippingly on the tongue. Which means that if you start at 7:30 and you’re done about half past ten and you want a twenty-minute interval for bar sales, you’ve got about 2,400 lines’ worth of playing time. You realize that if you don’t cut it before you go into rehearsal, you’re going to have about four and a half hours of playing time, and you probably didn’t want that.

King and Country had the illusion of feeling quite complete.

Well, I think it’s a matter of filleting here and there, sometimes for pace. I don’t change the words, though it’s more fashionable to do so now.

Doing the 1623 Folio text as written actually has a shorter history — in the four hundred years since his death — than bowdlerizing the work.

Like King Lear. I mean, I used to sneer at Nahum Tate, as everyone did. The idea of giving Lear a happy ending! But it held the stage for 130 years. It wasn’t until Edmund Kean decided to put back the original ending and then, after only three performances, he was forced to reinstate the happy ending. But, having sneered at it. … When I was looking at the original history of King Lear, the source material, and the earlier work, King Leir — all of which have happy endings — you get to a point where you realize: Shakespeare didn’t set out to change the ending. I think he set out to write it and got to a point where he went: The world, as it is today, cannot bring this to a happy conclusion.

England had just had its “5/11,” the Gunpowder Plot. We just had the king, the Parliament, the royal family, all the estates nearly annihilated in a terrorist attack. The world has lost its moorings. We are in this instable crisis, axis moment. I can’t make this play have a happy ending. But we found something really crucial in rehearsal. I remember telling Tony Sher: “Lear has another scene.” And he goes, “What?! What do you mean?!”

What did you mean?

You get towards the end of the fourth act: Albany’s dead. Goneril and Regan are rivals for Edmund’s love; they’re in a mess. Cordelia has returned, Kent has revealed himself to Cordelia, the king has been found. Edgar and Gloucester have managed to escape the predations of their families and everyone’s coming together. Everything’s at a crossroads. The key thing for me in directing Shakespeare is: Just because you know it ends tragically, don’t play it that way. You reach a crossroads, and you may go that way tonight, or the other way, and the audience needs to think that anything could happen. Cheat their underlying knowledge that it doesn’t, but tonight, it just might.

How do you do that?

Edgar brings the blind Gloucester on, sits him under a tree, and the blind man watches the battle between Cordelia and King Lear’s forces and those of Regan and Goneril. The stage direction suggests that you see Lear crossing the stage, with his soldiers and Cordelia, and that must suggest they’re all together now, they’ve bonded, and he’s got his sanity back and they’re going to trash those sisters. So then, seconds later, where someone comes back on and says King Lear’s lost, it should be: “What?!” I realized that I had been directing the battle, orchestrating it as a dying fall; it was going to be the tragic ending we’re all expecting. What you have to do in that scene is play it absolutely as if you’re going towards a victory for King Lear and Cordelia. It was fascinating because it felt as though Shakespeare was following the source material, and he just went: I can’t do this. I can’t bring about this happy ending because the world’s not like that anymore.

In rehearsal, I would imagine a couple of key questions are: What kind of father was Lear? What kind of king was he?

Well, his attitude to Goneril is appalling. The way he curses her womb. His attack on Goneril’s generative organs feels weighted with disgust, essentially. When you get through that curse, it just seems out of all proportion to anything that she can possibly have done.

Lear doesn’t have any sons, does he? So maybe the curse is colored by that.

I’m sure that’s the relationship to Goneril. He blames her for not being a boy and therefore not providing him with a secure heir, and he’s now divided up the country because without a male heir, that’s going to a problem.

You’ve known Antony Sher for more than thirty years. You married him. You direct him. How would you describe his approach to acting? 

One of the things he loves about Shakespeare’s characters — and every character he plays — is the contradictions, because he feels that those contradictions make them human, because we all are massive contradictions. Too often writers iron those out and Tony loves to wrinkle them up. We did Cyrano de Bergerac together and he could play Cyrano’s — he called it his “visible soul.” There’s this character dressed in flesh and then there’s the visible soul, and that’s something that he’s able to expose. But he doesn’t ask you to love him as an actor. I think it’s the same with Lear. He’s intolerable for three acts. Then, because of what happens to him, you feel protective towards him. I don’t know how Shakespeare does that, but he does it, which is an astonishing thing to do. But Tony doesn’t mind you not loving him, which I think ultimately means that you do.

You’ve been domestic and creative partners a long time. What’s the work/life balance like?

We learned a long time ago. We were doing Titus Andronicus in South Africa, at the end of the apartheid. Barney Simon of Market Theatre invited us to do a Shakespeare in Johannesburg. Tony had never performed in his home town. We suggested doing Titus, and the play itself turned from this gory tragedy to being a play about the need to break the cycles and restore a sense of reconciliation. In the evening, we would go home to this fortified compound with barbed wire in one of the suburbs. There was gunfire every night; we realized we were in the murder capital of the world. So, we’d go home, and there was a pool. I’d need a gin and tonic, to sit by the pool and forget the day, and he would go, “What about that bit in Act III Scene 3? Is that actor really going to do that?” You know, all those things. And eventually I asked him, “Please stop, I’m not going to talk about it anymore,” and he went on and on. Eventually I picked up my plate and threw it at him. We realized that we couldn’t go on like that. So, we made ground rules, to give each other space at home. It’s a much happier relationship.

You’ve gone on record saying Shakespeare was gay.

I think I was reacting to was what Katherine Duncan-Jones called the “heterosexualization of Shakespeare.” Talk about bowdlerizing Shakespeare: In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sonnets were bowdlerized to such an extent that all the pronouns were changed.

I did not know that.

Of the 154 sonnets, probably 120 of them are addressed to another man. I don’t know whether Shakespeare was gay. We know he married Anne Hathaway and had Susanna and the twins at a very young age. I kept on finding characters who are clearly gay, as we would now describe it. I felt that there was something about the perspective of a gay man in the society in which he existed that gave him an insight into female characters. You have an outsider’s perspective, whether that’s because you’re a Jew, because you’re a Moor, because you’re a woman, or because you’re a homosexual.

What do you think about directors giving characters or plays a distinctly queer slant?

Re-gendering and rethinking characters is really interesting and we’re doing more of it at Stratford at the moment. Our new Troilus and Cressida this winter is going to be the first fifty-fifty male-female ensemble. Partly because there are many calls, from many actresses, who feel that things should be more balanced. I tried to get Phyllida Lloyd to come to Stratford at one point, and she said not until you’re fifty-fifty.

As an organization, the RSC is sixty percent women, forty percent men, but on our stages, because of Shakespeare, we’re more balanced towards the men. I’m not going to impose fifty-fifty as some kind of policy because that would stop us from doing an all-female production, frankly. But I think it is an interesting way of looking at characters. I’ve been thinking maybe Helen of Troy should be transgender or something ambiguous. Shakespeare’s robust; he’ll take it.

You’re six years into the job. How about greater diversity in casting? Is that part of your agenda in Stratford?

Next year we’re doing a season called “Reflecting the Nation,” which is a moment of recalibration six years in to ask, are we doing this all right? Can we do things better? So, we’re going to reflect the nation in terms of gender, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of disability, and in terms of regionality. An across-the-board mix. We won’t be going, “Hey, we’re going to cast this character disabled or female.” It’ll be because there’s a group of actors we’re drawing from. And I want to produce badges where it says, “IT’S CALLED ACTING.” I think the drive for the authentic can sometimes be counterproductive to the art of the actor.


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.