A reworking of King Lear by William Shakespeare
Director: Joshua Stretton
Producer: Cygnet Theatre, Paris
Venue: Théâtre de Verre, 12 Rue Henri Ribière, Paris 19e
Dates: 11 & 12; 18 & 19 March 2020
Cygnet Theatre was founded in Paris in 2018 by an international group of young theatre artists dedicated to creating, developing and performing – in English – plays in the classical repertoire.
To date its productions have been presented in summer, in the leafy surroundings of the Arènes de Montmartre beneath the basilica of Sacré Coeur. This year sees the company expanding its activities into the winter months with a radical revisioning of King Lear at Théâtre de Verre in the uber-cool 19th district on the city’s east side.
In Paris, English actor and company member Joshua Stretton (pictured above) has played lead roles in productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. Now he turns his hand to directing, bringing an epic theatre approach to his fresh new take on Shakespeare’s towering tragedy of old age and mental decline.
Joshua talks to The Even Hand about the company’s development and his directorial plan for one of the cornerstones of the Shakespearean canon.
Q: Tell us about your own background as an actor and director?
A: I studied theatre at school and completed a degree in theatre and performance at Goldsmiths, University of London. In 2018 I attended the Moscow Art Theatre School before returning to London to pursue a formal career as a performer.
In spite of some wonderful opportunities, I found life as a commercial actor difficult, so I started my own theatre company Metamorph, taking on the dual roles of director and actor. It developed in my mind a clear picture of what I wanted as an artist: a permanent place within which to be creative. My work with Metamorph replicated the troupe system I had seen in Moscow and gradually the idea of forming a company of actors and directors took root in my mind.
In 2017 I was invited to Paris to perform in an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From that experience, the idea of a permanent classical theatre company in Paris became more defined. This idea would become Cygnet Theatre.
Q: What prompted you to move your professional base to Paris? Does the city offer good professional opportunities for English-speaking actors and directors – as well as outlets for making work?
A: It’s a tricky one to answer. Generally speaking, there is not a thriving industry for an English-speaking freelance theatre-maker in Paris. If your primary goal is to make a good living entirely from acting work – and you only work in your native English – it isn’t the city for you. But, on the other hand, if you are creative and focused – and prepared to take on other supplementary paid work – you can make your own opportunities.
After Moscow I’d returned to London and a life of flying around the city on my bicycle, attending castings where a serious-faced panel would ask me to mime eating a pizza slice in slow motion or imagine a barrage of fireworks, can-can dancers and champagne fountains. That had become the sad reality of my ‘professional opportunities’ and I wanted out.
Here in Paris I am a board member of Cygnet Theatre and, as an actor and director, I have had the opportunity to focus on full length productions of Shakespeare’s work.
We have presented two productions since 2018 and I am now directing our third. Meanwhile the company is planning shows four and five. This is a passion project. The company is led by the shared desire to be as free, creative and inclusive as possible. It has given me more theatre work than I ever had before and, better still, it’s the kind of work I always wanted, bringing together talented artists from many different countries and cultural traditions, who work together to explore a rich theatrical tradition.
Q: How did you come to be associated with the company?
A: In 2017 after leaving the Moscow Art Theatre, Charlotte Pleasants, an old friend based in Paris, pitched the idea of a full-length Shakespeare production in English. We brought together a host of talented performers, whom we already knew in the city, and a fellow MXAT grad and I popped over from London to rehearse. That production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in which Stretton played the role of Demetrius) was successful and creatively stimulating. Off the back of it, Charlotte and I decided to bring together some key members of the team to form a company. I took the big decision to move permanently to Paris and make Cygnet Theatre my main creative endeavour.
Q: Since The Dream, Cygnet has successfully produced two more Shakespearean comedies – Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. Now you are taking on an entirely different beast, King Lear, one of the great tragedies. Brave, ambitious or just plain crazy?
A: In his 1984 book Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide, the former RSC artistic director John Barton discusses the role of Shylock with Patrick Stewart and David Suchet. These two distinguished actors offer radically differing interpretations and yet both played the same character in separate productions, directed by John Barton.
That’s not to say that we are venturing into Lear because we can always do it again if we fail. It’s to say that any Shakespearean play offers a myriad of different interpretations. To shy away from Lear because of its status is ultimately to admit never knowing if one is truly ‘ready.’
In deciding what I want to work on, I look at themes and characters that interest me most. At this present moment, the inner struggles of family in Lear echo moments in my own life and it feels right to follow that gut instinct and dive in.
That being said, the challenge of Lear is not to be ignored. For us as a young company, it is about discovering the text from moment to moment and finding how these relationships speak to us as actors, designers, directors. It doesn’t seem so scary that way.
Q: You are offering a radical take on the play – hence the retitled Lear. It’s an immense play about power struggles, the redistribution of wealth, psychological manipulation, mental disintegration, political/family discord. Given that Cygnet is a young company, how have you revised your production to deliver the generational clashes and huge existential themes that lie at the heart of it?
A: Age is at the heart of Lear. We all know we shall grow old; many of us hope to get there and, on the way, make peace with our ultimate end. In our version, Lear (who will be played by a woman) sees her life, family, power, kingdom and sanity melt away in the wake of her own decisions to grow old and retire.
We are reimagining this moment occurring in the body of a younger person faced with the dramatic acceleration of her end. Early onset Alzheimer’s can take hold in people as young as 30, with many symptoms emerging before the sufferer notices something is wrong. Our Lear faces a conscious end, with the years of her life stretching before her. The decision must be taken about what to do about the time that is left.
From this revised starting point the play proceeds without too much interference. In turn, it challenges the audience to reimagine the familiar story in a new, perhaps even more tragic, context.
Sixty-four years after the death of William Shakespeare, doctors began using the word ‘diagnosis.’ In 2020 it’s a familiar word in a world where, for example, 40% of the population will be diagnosed with cancer. Illness affects families in a far more direct way than Lear’s madness affects the family. This production aims to reflect this shift while exploring the existential themes of the play.
Q: Will you be using the unedited text or will it be abridged? Do you plan to retain the Shakespearean language, as in previous productions?
A: The text has been shortened significantly and some sections have been removed, but the idea at the heart of each scene has been retained.
It will be presented by eight performers, with one actor playing both Cordelia and the Fool. Significant cuts include the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall whose roles have, at times, been merged into those of their respective wives Regan and Goneril. Gone too is the King of France, Oswald and the servants and attendants. Our version removes the war with France and all allusions to ‘kingdoms’ in order to focus closely on the lives of Lear and her family. The remaining text is largely unaltered; we leave the verse alone!
Q: How to you plan to approach the production from a directorial point of view?
A: I am strongly influenced both by Erwin Piscator’s writings on epic theatre and productions I have seen by Yury Butusov, which take this approach in tackling classical text.
It’s no secret that Shakespeare’s audiences were far more aware of their surroundings than today’s theatre audiences. The challenge to a director is how to present a text that was designed for the inside of a beer hall to a crowd used to psychologically detailed storytelling. I will be using epic theatre aesthetics to retain the structure and style of Shakespearean theatre, while allowing the actors to investigate the inner workings of their characters and present the complex play of emotions hidden in each scene.
Our Lear is broken into 32 scenes. Each scene will be carefully outlined to keep it separate from the whole. It will be left to the audience to piece together the meaning of each sequence.
Q: What is the challenge of presenting classic English language theatre in Paris? Is there an appetite for it among the public?
A: Shakespeare’s language is a challenge for many native English speakers but to sacrifice it is to lose the essence of the play. In 2018, The Print Room Theatre in London welcomed the Norwegian National Theatre to perform a production of Little Eyolf by Ibsen. The theatre declared: ‘It’s something special to see a classical text in its original language.” I saw King Lear in Moscow and it was explained to me that because there is no Russian equivalent to Shakespearean English, the text was translated into modern Russian.
I think one could make the argument that Shakespeare has to been seen in English, but understanding the show is equally important so we will provide a synopsis of the production in the programme and use French surtitles throughout as an aid.
Q: How does Cygnet fund its productions?
A: Funding remains a crucial issue at the heart of all artistic projects and, like many others, Cygnet is constantly searching for a permanent, long-term solution.
In London, however, I found the struggle to be far worse. The lack of affordable rehearsal space and large up-front costs for venue hire, combined with stiff competition within the sector, made attracting funding and paying for shows an almost insurmountable challenge.
The Arènes de Montmartre, where we perform our summer seasons, is owned by local government and is free to use. The Salles Saint Roch, where we rehearse, is very affordable. In addition, we are thrifty and creative in keeping high quality production values to a minimum cost.
We regularly hold fundraisers, partnering with our sister company Tapis Théatre on variety/comedy events and theatre-themed quiz nights. Last summer we ran a crowd-funding campaign in tandem with Brewdog Beer, who generously donated the bar stock for our production of Twelfth Night.
We work hard to make sure our shows are creative, entertaining and professionally presented. Audiences love them and attendance figures are rising rapidly. We are gaining a dedicated constituency within the city, as well as attracting tourists and casual visitors from all over the world. The proceeds from ticket sales go towards funding the next show.
Cygnet is committed to paying its artists for their work. In the case of Lear, we will be allocating half our budget to artists’ wages. As the company continues to grow and attract investment, we will be able to adjust wages accordingly and show our gratitude for support received by offering support to others.
Q: Is it Cygnet’s aim to extend its reach beyond the city’s Anglophone constituency and into a wider international audience? Has that already started to happen?
A: Yes absolutely. Our previous productions have taken place out of doors during the summer months. This is our first winter production and it will be presented in an indoor space. This has enabled us to make use of surtitles, which is something we talked about from the beginning. Our productions are VO, as the French would say – original version. They are not merely performed in English for the English.
There is a huge appetite for Shakespeare in Paris. As I write, you can see, in various venues around the city, productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. The Paris Opera is due to present an operatic version of King Lear. We have welcomed a huge international mix of people to our summer shows. We hope that as the company name grows the cosmopolitan flavour of our audiences will grow with it.
Q: What do you hope audiences will take away from your production of Lear?
A: A different perspective. This production combines three contrasting elements: a classic text and well known story, a modern adaptation that changes Lear from an old king to a sick younger woman, and a young international cast. It’s a challenging mix for an audience and I hope it helps them to see both an old story and a young company in a new light.
The Board of Cygnet Theatre:
Joshua Stretton (England); Emily Guernsey (USA); Charlotte Pleasants (New Zealand); Taylor Scott (Canada); Audrey Mikondo (France); Hannah Coyle (Ireland)