A typical, unabridged performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear takes just under three hours. The play, a tale of a once-mighty king descending into madness and losing most of his kingdom due to the treachery of two of his daughters, was first performed in 1606, and it has become one of Shakespeare’s most highly-regarded, and perhaps most dreaded, tragedies.
Or at least that’s the impression that Clarence Felder, an actor, writer, filmmaker, and director with The Actor’s Theatre of South Carolina, got from a colleague of his when he mentioned he was planning on helming a production of Lear.
“A friend of mine that I’ve done productions with before and I were talking about my doing Lear,” and he said, “Oh my gosh, that’s a load!” Felder says with a laugh. “And I told him that this one is going to run right around two hours. And he said, ‘A two-hour Lear is a gift to humanity!'”
Well, at the very least, it’s a gift to modern humanity. Felder has adapted and significantly trimmed-down King Lear to just under 120 minutes for an upcoming production at Threshold Repertory Theatre, and he’s done so with a contemporary audience in mind. It’s part of a program that he and King Lear co-director Chris Weatherford created called “Shakespeare for All,” which presents productions based on adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays intended to make the plays more accessible to a general audience.
Cutting an hour or so out of an iconic play might seem like it would gut it of a large portion of its plot, but Felder says that’s not actually the case; he says that the Bard tended to repeat himself a lot, because he had to.
“You have to picture the audiences of the time,” he says. “They were standing up for the whole show; there were no seats. There were salesmen and ladies of questionable virtue working the crowd while the play was going on. So Shakespeare had to repeat things two or three times just to make sure people got it. In the theater of today, we don’t need that. You don’t have to repeat it over and over again for today’s audience.”
Plus, Felder says, Shakespeare historically cared a lot more about concept and language than plot. The concepts in this case being love, treachery, justice, and forgiveness.
“He goes from concept to concept to concept,” he says, “and you realize how magnificent the poetry is. Shakespeare deals with the human heart and the passions we feel.”
In order to convey those passions, and the folly they can lead to, one needs a powerful and compelling actor at the center of the action playing Lear, and Felder and Weatherford found exactly that in David Loar, an accomplished performer whose credits include the National Shakespeare Company and Chamber Repertory Theatre of Boston, among others.
“He has this kind of force and authority,” Felder says, “but he has the ability because of the great actor he is to show that he’s starting to crack and crumble over into this kind of willful arrogance.”
“David has inspired all of us,” Weatherford says. “In fact, I’m not sure we would’ve done Lear if we didn’t have David. We built the whole cast around him; he’s extraordinary.”
Felder and Weatherford have changed the setting of King Lear as well, moving it from medieval England to North America circa 1745. The action unfolds in what would eventually become North Dakota, during the buildup to the French and Indian War. King Lear is, in this case, a prosperous fur trader.
Weatherford says that they chose that setting because the territorial battles and naked greed that marked that time and place are a perfect context for King Lear.
“We were looking around for what time period to use and we stumbled onto this place,” Weatherford says. “Most people know what the French and Indian War was, but they don’t know the cauldron that was bubbling up in the decades before. The English and the French were fighting over that land because the fur trade was so vital. The French king decided that he wanted that land and the English had sort of appropriated it years before and there were a lot of skirmishes.”
It was also a time when most people still used crude, handheld weapons, which suits the staging of the violence in Shakespeare’s play.
“Hand weapons like blades and tomahawks were still very much in use,” Felder says.
That said, Felder adds that for him, the overall message of much of Shakespeare’s work is one of love. “Whether it’s unrequited, requited, twisted, or familial, it’s always about love,” he says.
Which is an easy topic for the two co-directors to explore, Weatherford says, seeing as they fell in love while performing Shakespeare years ago.
“I’m just remembering that we fell in love doing Shakespeare,” she says with a laugh. “I fell in love with Clarence when we were playing the Capulets in Romeo & Juliet!”