On February 24, Shakespeare Theatre Company opens a production of “King Lear” set in the present day with direction by Simon Godwin and acclaimed actor Patrick Page starring as Lear.
If you’re unfamiliar, Lear, a British king, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, the eldest; Regan, the middle daughter; and Cordelia, the youngest — and Lear’s favorite. This sparks a political power struggle that pits sister against sister while Lear descends into madness. In this production, real-life dynamics enhance the relationships onstage: actors Rosa Gilmore (Goneril) and Stephanie Jean Lane (Regan) are longtime friends.
We spoke with Gilmore, Lane and Lily Santiago (Cordelia) to learn more about being Lear’s daughters and Shakespeare Theatre’s fresh cut of the classic masterpiece.
District Fray: Stephanie and Rosa, what did you bring from your friendship into your roles? How did that impact Lily?
Stephanie Jean Lane: Rosa and I were in the same class at NYU Grad Acting. It’s a class of 16 [people]. Already having this closeness with Rosa, being able to grab onto each other and hug — that comes naturally.
Rosa Gilmore: When we created biographies of our characters, we came up with the fact that we are a year apart in age, and that Cordelia is about 10 years younger than me. There is something serendipitous about this: [Stephanie and I] have 10 years of real-life history together.
Lily Santiago: It was a little intimidating if I’m honest. What’s amazing is that we’ve been able to strike up a friendship, [so] we can play the tension on stage: when I call you names, and you look at me like you want to kill me…you’re not afraid that someone actually hates you.
Tell me more about writing biographies.
Gilmore: Simon [Godwin] facilitated this beautifully. We went through the script as a group and asked all the questions we could think of, then answered the questions about our characters on our own. We can then walk onstage with a history we’ve created.
Santiago: I’ve rarely had the opportunity to speculate on my character alone. It was cool to see how much overlap there was [with the other actors’ biographies]: what we thought about our mothers, how we were educated, what our relationship with our father was.
What have you learned about your characters?
Lane: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a middle child. What I’ve found with Regan is that we use what our strengths are. Especially within a family structure, our strengths are often defined for us by others. They are what other people see in us, and we’ll use them if we have to.
Gilmore: I feel like Goneril’s main throughline is her belief in justice. There are terrible things said to her, and every man in the play has a moment of overlooking or making her smaller. That drive for justice, to be seen and to have people believe in her has become like a north star.
Santiago: There’s a lot of speculation around [Cordelia] as being almost angelic. What I’ve been really finding is that she’s just human like everybody else. I’ve been having fun with the challenge of letting her be grounded and flawed, and being like her father in his stubbornness and sense of adventure.
What will audiences experience from this play that they haven’t seen before?
Santiago: I’m excited we’re doing a modern version of the play, especially here in D.C. — [Lear] can be any sort of major political leader. You see his daughters as people who have been raised in the public eye: their wealth, their privilege. Everyone will fight with all they have to get what they need. With that comes a pace that is really enticing.
Gilmore: I think it’s going to feel like a ball picking up speed and rolling down a hill. There’s no philosophical or intellectual wall between these characters’ emotions. That’s going to hit people powerfully.
What makes “King Lear” such an enduring play?
Lane: It endures because it humanizes power structures. We see a family struggling with things all families struggle with. What do I need to do to survive? How do I get enough love? How do I maintain my own sense of self within a political structure?
Gilmore: There is nothing to me that feels more contemporary than a generation taking over another generation. What is the emotional experience of knowing your time is up?
Santiago: It’s the fact that people are willing to die for what they need or what they think they need, whether it’s a fight for power, to be respected, to have your voice heard or to protect yourself or your loved ones. Every moment is life or death.
Lane: The relationship between King Lear and Cordelia will never not be fresh. Watching a man struggle with the loss of faculties that come with old age — that’s always going to be true, and always going to make us feel.
“King Lear” runs at the Klein Theatre from February 24 through April 8. To learn more and get tickets, visit here.
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