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Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 5

The following article was published on DC Theatre Scene, April 9, 2014.

In this installment, Stacy shares some memories about his performance as King Lear, and on the differences – as well as one big similarity – between Lear and Falstaff. The answers might surprise you. – DL

People have often asked me, how does Falstaff compare to Lear? Well, Lear is a wonderful part, there’s no question about it. Every stage actor dreams of two roles: Hamlet when you’re young and King Lear when you’re old. I’m glad I played Lear when I did. The role is exhausting to play, particularly up through the storm scene on the heath. When we did the play here in 2009, in the production directed by Robert Falls, the pace made it feel like literally climbing a mountain. There is no doubt about it, the role requires real physical stamina. The play runs over three hours, if you only take one intermission, nearly two hours into the show. These big Shakespearean roles are athletic events. You have to be in athletic shape to do them because they’re so physically demanding.

The production started at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2008, and I swore I would never do anything like it again … until Michael Kahn called me and said he wanted to restage it in Washington at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. And now here I am, 5 years older, and doing six hours of Shakespeare over two nights for this amazing man. Crazy. I can think of a few other words, but it’s a testament to what Michael and this company means to me.

Sir John Gielgud was once asked the key to a great King Lear. “Make sure you have a light Cordelia,” he deadpanned.

Michael Kahn, Stacy Keach, and Robert Falls in rehearsal for King Lear.

I don’t think he was joking, at least not entirely. Much of theatre is about executing blocking in a way that seems effortless and natural, which isn’t easy when you’re trying to carry Cordelia’s limp body around onstage. Anyone who has ever carried a dead body knows that those things are no joke. (My Cordelia, Laura Odeh, is a marvelous actress and she was eminently carryable, if that were a word.) I was able to repay the favor later in that production when I fell back dead in Kent’s arms. Fortunately for me, my Kent, Steve Pickering (who’s also acting in this show, playing Worcester in Part 1 and Pistol in Part 2), caught me every time.

The role and the play are extremely complex, but I believe that Lear doesn’t have quite the variety and the levels that Falstaff has. Lear gets very upset very early on in the play because he’s been betrayed by his daughters. It thrusts him into a terrifying, childlike madness, and he lives in that world for most of the play.

I remember I gave some variety to the role in the way I played the opening scene. I came out exuberant, dancing, whooping. My Lear was no aged feeble leader. He also wasn’t mad yet. I hate the idea that Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear are completely daft from the beginning. It has to be a journey for the character. I wanted to create an arc so that Lear has farther to fall. You have to see the years of his egocentric, self-absorbed behavior, all of which convinces him that Cordelia has betrayed him.

I did add some premonitions of frailty and madness to the role. I remember, in that first scene, adding an “Oh” and clutching my heart, as if to say, “I’m okay, but I need to sit now, for a moment, to catch my breath.” Later, when Lear is screaming at Goneril and Regan, his two older daughters who have betrayed him, he again had a minor heart incident. Later in the play, after Cordelia has died, he no longer has any reason for his heart to continue beating. It was a very personal performance for me. I had a minor heart condition myself in between Chicago and Washington, and the theme of mortality – of the ways in which our body and mind slowly betray us as we grow old – resonated powerfully with me.

Stacy Keach as King Lear, Joaquin Torres as Edgar, and Steve Pickering as Kent in King Lear, directed by Robert Falls, at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2009. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lear goes mad, he suffers from delusions, and his body betrays him. He’s a very different character in some ways from Falstaff, but there are deeper connections between the two. There’s nothing mad about Falstaff, nothing irrational. He isn’t betrayed by his body or mind, but he suffers from some of the same delusions, born of his own insatiable self-belief. Like Lear, Falstaff is a monster of ego, and he pays for it.

Falstaff is also similar to Lear in his surprising childishness. Falstaff can be very calculating, like a clever child, but he also gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. As I’ve said previously, what Falstaff wants more than anything in the world is to climb one notch up on the political ladder. He really believes that when Hal becomes a member of the court, he’ll be his right hand man. It’s painfully naïve and wonderfully vulnerable, this belief.

There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of Part 1 where we see that inner child emerge. It’s just before the big battle of Shrewsbury, where Falstaff says to Hal, “I would ’twere bedtime.” He’s like a child talking to his parent, wanting to be tucked into bed, safe and sound. People often say that Falstaff is a surrogate father figure to Hal, but I think it’s the other way around. Hal has more maturity. When push comes to shove, it’s Hal who makes the tough decision, and Falstaff who has the uncomprehending eyes of a child in a big cruel world. And of course we see that tremendous vulnerability again at the end of Part 2 when Falstaff is banished, which I think is one of the saddest moments in all of Shakespeare.

Thanks for listening to me, bub! Talk to you next week.

Stacy Keach

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