We interviewed director Ben Prusiner to talk about his recent production of King Lear, brexit and his Re:Verse Theatre.
Interview by Jane Howkins.
You are putting on a production of King Lear with the York Shakespeare Company in November and December. How did that come about?
I saw their incredibly inventive production of Pericles and was absolutely blown away.
What was it that made you want to put King Lear on? Is it a particular favourite of yours, and if so, why?
The play was actually chosen by the YSP as part of their mission to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in York within 20 years. One of the things that made me really want to work on it was that I had never really enjoyed productions of Lear that I’d seen – they were always so slow and depressing! Of course there is a lot of tragedy in the play, but Shakespeare also balances this with a lot of life and comedy, and that balance is more reflective of how life really is. So I was motivated to attempt a Lear that was more in line with the way I responded to the text when I read it.
I moved to the UK shortly before the Brexit vote, and the political themes of loyalty, division of the Kingdom and allegiance to mainland Europe (France) certainly jumped to the foreground. While we don’t ignore these issues in the play, I’ve always found Shakespeare’s strength to be in the personal, not the political, and this play resonates with any family where children have seemed ungrateful, or where ageing parents or older relatives have been challenging to contend with. And while it isn’t always thought of in this way, it is also a story about homelessness. Ultimately the central question of the play for me is “what would you do if you lost everything,” as that is what happens to numerous characters in the story. The play is powerful because the story of Lear could happen to any of us.
Are there any other Shakespeare plays you particularly enjoy, and any you would like to direct in the future?
I’ve always been fascinated by Othello and have been dying to direct Julius Caesar (having assistant-directed it twice), but I have to admit that my favourite is the little-known Henry VI part 2, which is a play full of passion and politics unlike anything else Shakespeare ever wrote. However, my main focus is actually on Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who often took very bold political stances in their work. It’s hard to choose, but I’d have to pick Volpone, Ben Jonson’s delicious satire on greed, and Christopher Marlowe’s evisceration of political and religious hypocrisy, The Jew of Malta, as projects that I would love the chance to bring to life someday.
Why did you decide to work with the York Shakespeare Company, and who approached who first?
I reached out to the YSP (York Shakespeare Project) to see if they were looking for directors for future projects. It turned out that they had an open call for directors for King Lear, and I applied!
The production is being performed at the upstairs theatre at 41 Monkgate. Why did you choose this venue, and what is it that appeals to you about it?
I saw several performances at the John Cooper Studio Theatre, including YSP’s Pericles, and each one used the space in a completely different seating arrangement. Very early on it felt right to stage Lear on a thrust stage, and this was the best place to do that. What is so unique about thrust is that it has the proprieties of an end-on arrangement on one side of the stage, which allows you to create formal pictures of order and power, and then when you move into the middle of the space it is much more fluid and like theatre-in-the-round, where the audience feels much more part of the action. This seemed perfect for a play about someone falling from the highest, most formal position in the world to the lowest and most disordered state.
Is there anything that you are changing in your version of King Lear, or are you keeping it traditional?
Perhaps the biggest change is that from the beginning we opened auditions for all roles to people of all genders. This was in part because the YSP was committed to ensuring more women had opportunities to perform with the company, but also because I believed that the story of Lear, of losing everything, could happen to any of us and wanted to see who the best actors were for the roles, regardless of gender. While we ended up with a male King Lear, many of the other main (and supporting) roles are played by women in this production, including Kent, Gloucester, and Edgar (whom we have re-named “Emma”). This has given a chance to cast the best people and create a special ensemble and story arc that also will hopefully resonate with people’s modern-day social and personal experiences.
Many other elements of the production are quite traditional – the main focus is on the text and bringing it alive. We have updated the costumes to modern day, which I would argue is also in keeping with original practices in its own way! Whilst the story of King Lear supposedly takes place around 800 B.C., Shakespeare seems to set it in or near his own time period, and actors would have worn contemporary clothes (for them!) for almost all productions regardless of when they were set. My hope is that by dressing it modern-day, audiences can immediately connect to the situation and understand the social status of all the players involved.
The text also calls for actors to constantly speak directly to the audience, and we are doing that as well, reinforced by a few immersive moments. The audience will feel like they are part of the show, but don’t worry – the actors will always look after you!
You’re originally from the United States. How do you feel the theatre/arts scene differs between the U.K. and the U.S.A?
I recently moved here from New York where I was working off-Broadway. Of course that is a much bigger arts scene, which can be exciting but its also easy to get drowned out. It also felt like there was less innovation in New York in some cases, because the focus is on either making money or getting noticed. I am loving the thriving arts scene in York, which feels both open to experimentation and also connected to the layers of history that we see and interact with every day.
You are also the Artistic Director of Re:Verse Theatre, where you take classic productions and put a modern twist on them. What is it that appeals to you about doing this?
Re:Verse combines my two passions for classical theatre and politically conscious theatre. I think that theatre in England in the Renaissance was extremely political, and it is illuminating to see how social issues they were dealing with then (materialism, social inequality, gender relations, religious conflict) are still impacting us today. By entering into dialogue with the past we can gain new insights on the present.
What can you tell us about Re:Verse Theatre, and do you have anything lined up with that in the future?
Back in the U.S. we are currently working to produce an off-Broadway production of The Atheist’s Tragedy, which is a Renaissance play focused on materialism and greed that is also enormously fun. In the U.K. I have a few ideas in the pipeline, including a version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors that focuses on the immigration narrative in the story, as well as Ben Jonson’s Catiline Conspiracy, which pits democracy against tyranny and hasn’t been performed in England or elsewhere in over 400 years. If anyone reading this is interested in getting involved, go to benprusiner.com and reach out!
Any last words for the fans?
Come see King Lear – I hope you enjoy it!
Details for King Lear found here.