What does it mean to ‘modernise’ Shakespeare? Is such a thing possible or even necessary? Shakespeare’s plays are known for being ‘timeless’ – for speaking truths that transcend time periods. For some audiences a ‘modernisation’ can be a meaningless imposition of a modern set onto an early modern text. But ‘Lear’s Daughters’ is not ‘King Lear’ with jeans and ipads. It is a thoroughly modern version of the text, in which every care has been taken to give a modern audience an immediate and effortless connection with the language and emotions of the original play. The aim of the production is to have the audience feel that they are watching a play of today, which just happens to have the most electrifying, lyrical and muscular language ever written in English – just as audiences might have felt in Shakespeare’s early modern London, when the language was as unusual and magnificent as it is now.
Shakespeare’s plays are undeniably timeless in their understanding of human expression and were certainly modern and innovative in their own time, but the first step in modernising has to be in acknowledging what makes them different from plays written now. Shakespeare’s plays, in the forms to which we now have access (though perhaps not in their performance cuts from the early modern period) are long, have large casts with very few female characters, contain very few explicit stage directions (and most of these are the work of modern editors), can move rapidly back and forth between interior and exterior locations, frequently have several plot lines running at once, and are characterised by a frivolous disregard for how time actually works. Then there is the not inconsiderable matter of the language. However ‘timeless’ the thoughts and feelings expressed may be, the vocabulary, rhythms and imagery of Shakespeare’s language mean that a speaker of English in 2014 will not be able to understand as much of the script as their seventeenth-century counterpart would have done, and considerably less than they would expect to understand watching a modern play, or a film. For us, ‘modernising Shakespeare’ has come to mean trying to align the 1506 audience experience with the 2014, stripping back early modern constructions and conventions to expose the heart of the play to a modern audience who do not have to struggle to connect with the action, or the emotion. The central idea in the play, the situation of a ‘child-changed father’, is uncomfortable but familiar, and whilst the inversion of child and parent may seem unnatural, it is instantly recognizable to a modern audience who are dealing with the morally and practically complex burden of an aging population. ‘Lear’s Daughters’ attempts to draw together the many threads within ‘King Lear’ which contribute to the exploration of this idea, and reorganise them in a modern style.
‘Lear’s Daughters’ domesticates ‘King Lear’, dealing principally with the issue of how much children really do owe their parents. The two most striking features of this modernisation are the set and the casting, both of which are radically different from the original, but both of which are intended to get to the play’s heart. When we talk about the themes at ‘the heart’ of a play, we don’t use the metaphor lightly. The play’s language is largely in iambic pentameter – the unmistakable rhythm of a beating heart. This medium has a muscularity to it, a visceral, forward-pushing momentum which makes physical the drive of each character to be heard and understood: speaking is an expression of the need to survive. All the information an actor needs (and all the information an early modern actor was going to get) is present in the lines of the character, and every word is a survival tool. To get to ‘the heart’ of the play is to try and understand the currents of the blood pumping through it: the patterns and rhythms of its language. A domestic tragedy where people speak their minds urgently, desperately and openly – where else could it be set but round the kitchen table? The kitchen draws the domesticity and the familial relationships to the surface of the play, where the audience can see them clearly, undistracted by sub-plots and side themes. The kitchen table is, for many families, a scene of both unity and discord. The same is true for the sisters in our play. In the original the sisters are separated geographically from each other, and orbit around the central character of their father. In early modern plays it was unusual (though not unheard of) for female characters to define the action of a play. That’s not to say they were not important or interesting, but it is certainly true that the culture and theatre practice in which Shakespeare was writing made it impossible for a play to focus on three sisters’ relationships with their father in the way a modern play allows, and even demands. If someone presented a new play as structurally complex as ‘King Lear’ to a modern producer, they would probably be told there is ‘too much going on’. If we presented our play to an early modern audience, we would probably be met with confusion at the fact that so little happens. They would probably also want to know where the men are. Including Lear.
‘Lear’s Daughters’ shrinks the orbit of the sisters into the kitchen, and whilst Lear is at the centre of the argument, he does not speak. This removal of Lear’s survival tool shifts the focus onto the daughters, allowing us to explore the argument of the play through three personalities. It is also significant to Lear’s loss of power over himself and his family. The legacy of Lear lies with his daughters, and watching it play out amongst them makes the action of the play almost uncomfortably honest about what that power shift means to this family. We have drawn lines from all over the original text, originally assigned to all the characters, and from those lines have constructed a new play with only three speaking characters. With this radical re-working of the text, what is left of ‘King Lear’? Those who know the play will recognise that the central events are the same: the love test, the banishment of Cordelia, the storm in which Lear rejects the unaffectionate care of his elder daughters and rushes head-long into a tempest, the love triangle (between Goneril, Regan and the enigmatic Edmund), the reconciliation of Cordelia and Lear, and the tragic climax of the play. The personalities of the daughters are also intact: Goneril is straight-talking and practical; Regan is clever and mercurial; Cordelia is honest to the point of self-destruction. Also intact is the relationship of the characters to language; Cordelia still never speaks in prose, which is reserved, both in Shakespeare’s original work and in our play, almost exclusively for villainy and comedy. Those who love the earthy, melancholic language of the original play will find it still- only now exclusively in the mouths of these three women. To have the three daughters speak Lear’s lines shows how they might take his part in different parts of his personal journey, and how they might embody different traits of his personality, which they do in the original but in a way which is harder to perceive on a first viewing. And just wait and see what we’ve done with the fool.
Crucially what this new casting of the play allows us to do is to tell a story to which a modern audience will connect without having to read a synopsis first: it is a story about three women who are trying to negotiate how much their lives are going to be defined by the needs of other people. This is a play that could be written today, but which couldn’t have been written in 1506, just as the original play wouldn’t be written now. The only way that this has been possible has been through trying to understand the original as comprehensively as possible in its original context. What both plays have in common is that only Shakespeare could have written anything this good.