Q&A with King Lear and the Actor Who Plays Him

We sat down with the tortured king and his real-life alter ego, Graham Smith
Mark Garvin
Graham Smith plays King Lear in the Collaborative Arts production.

We scooped everyone in town by scoring an interview with King Lear. (Actually, it’s actor Graham Smith, in character, who’s answering our questions. But it’s still a score.)

Smith has played Lear twice before—with the prestigious N.C. Shakespeare Festival in High Point—and is playing the monarch again in Collaborative Arts’ production, opening August 3. (It’s on stage through August 14 at McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square. And it’s free, but Collaborative Arts suggests giving a minimum donation of $5.) 

Smith has spent thirteen seasons with the N.C. Shakespeare Festival and has been a company member of People’s Light and Theatre in Philadelphia since 1997. His King Lear may be the finest one to ever grace a Charlotte stage.

Charlotte magazine: What’s up with those bitchy daughters of yours? You seriously couldn’t see through their fawning?
King Lear: Well, Miss Monday Morning Quarterback, it is easy to see when people are fawning over someone else, but much harder to see when they are fawning over you. And I am a king. Fawning is a constant and does not necessarily mean lying. But I have no issue with your use of the term “bitchy.”

CM: There sure is a lot of violence in your kingdom—particularly among your immediate family. Is that troubling to you, or is that just how the Lears roll?
KL: Seems like some of my in-laws are the most violent. It might be true that we don’t marry well.

CM: Most people like to hunker down in a thunderstorm, but not you. You’ll rush right out into the elements. How does the bad weather mirror how you’re feeling?
KL: As I always explain to Kent during the storm: “The tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else save what beats there: filial ingratitude.”

CM: You finally do come to the realization that Cordelia has loved you best all along. How tough was that to swallow?
KL: Why couldn’t she just have said that a bit more clearly in the beginning? Everything would have been fine if Cordelia had only been willing to sugarcoat just a bit, to indulge her old man just a bit in public. But nooo, the absolute integrity of her word was more important.

CM: How much do you rely on the Fool? Why do you suppose he disappears early in the action?
KL: Like all good autocrats, I rely on the Fool after the fact, and even then he is fairly hard to hear. The fool disappears shortly after his last line. … At that particular moment, I am quite mad, though sleeping, and no longer much of a king, so I suppose Fool goes wherever the truth might be heard …

We also interviewed Graham Smith, out of character.

CM: You’ve played Lear at least twice before. How does the Collaborative Arts’ production differ from the others?
Graham Smith: The other productions were at long-established theaters that had a full complement of resources, full-time actors, and the challenge of doing a play of this scale was a natural part of what they do. Collaborative Arts, producer of the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival, is newer, younger, and driven more by the personal industry of artists, namely Joe [Copley] and Elise [Wilkinson], who are determined that free Shakespeare can play a vital part of Charlotte arts. Doing a play of this scale is a big risk, but we all looked each other in the eye and agreed that we would jump. Now we have a company that is fresh and excited and realizing that we are doing something that we will only achieve if we reach for it. That is really where you want to be as an artist.

CM: Do you discover something new about the monarch each time you play him?
GS: He keeps expelling, denying, not seeing, fighting, going mad, sleeping it off, reconciling, grieving, and dying. I am discovering how commonplace this sequence of events is, actually.

CM: The play leaves audiences emotionally wrecked. What in the world does it do to the actors? How tough is it to re-live the pain and madness night after night?
GS: This is one of the paradoxes. The actors are playing and the emotions are released; the audience agrees to watch as if it were all actual, and feel as if what they see is real. In some ways, [that’s] tougher on them than us. Like any big job, the hard part is just getting started. If you start well, the play has its own momentum, its own inexorable march, and the size of the play and the energy of the language is quite invigorating. Besides, the actors move around quite a bit and that keeps the blood flowing and the breath released. Incidentally, if you feel the need to squirm, I advise doing it in the scenes with (fellow actors) Tim Ross and Stephen Ware. Their concentration is much better than mine and they can handle it.

CM: What do you say to people who think Shakespeare is just too hard to understand? Can anyone "get" King Lear?
GS: I would hate to think that the greatest writer in our language is too hard to understand. It certainly requires our attention and our energy. I think King Lear is actually easier to follow than some of the others in that it is essentially all action with less introspection and reflection. I also think that while no one can “get” King Lear, everyone can get a lot of it.

CM: Is King Lear the greatest tragedy ever written?
GS: Probably not the greatest tragedy in that it does not cleanly follow all of the rules. But the density of paradox, characters simultaneously iconic and real, epic suffering and down-to-earth domesticity, aesthetically pleasing nihilism, etcetera, make for a play that cannot be pinned down, one that calls for us all to give our best effort at realizing it, both as spectators and as players, and a play that calls on us like that is certainly one of the great ones.

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