King Lear: the daddy of all tragedies

OWEN Roe is one of Irish theatre’s most prized actors.

In the past decade, the Dubliner has played some of the iconic roles of modern drama: Hamm in Endgame, Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross.

“I’ve been very lucky,” says Roe. “The older you get, the better the roles are for men. But, of course, the older you get, well, the older you’re getting.” Roe is playing the title role in the Abbey’s new production of King Lear. It’s a return to Shakespeare for him: he has starred in acclaimed revivals of Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew. Roe is ‘ageing up’ for Lear. The tragic king undone by foolhardiness and madness is a very elderly man. Roe is but a tender 53.

“We’ve cut the reference to Lear being in his 80s,” says the actor. “I’m not 80 and there’s no point in me hobbling around the stage. But I don’t think there’s an actor alive in his 80s that could do this part. So I’m playing him as a little older than I am. And I’m also trying to bring it as close to my own experience as I can.”

Lear is a dark, pessimistic play, with an infamous eye-gouging scene. Yet, as a father, Roe spies the comical in Shakespeare’s portrayal of the parent-child dynamic at the play’s centre. Having divided up his kingdom between his daughters, Lear wants to spend his retirement by crashing with them whenever he wishes, but they don’t dig the idea. It will cramp their style.

“Lear says, ‘I’ll come to your house, daughter, and then I’ll come to your house, daughter’, and they say: ‘Actually, Dad. No. You can’t come to my house.’ That’s Lear at its most simplistic. That’s what I love about it — the humanity. Lear says, ‘Well, okay. I will be patient with Goneril. I and my hundred knights will call on Regan’s house, instead.’ And Regan goes, ‘Ah, no, Dad, you won’t.’ The audience find it funny because they recognise the truth of it,” says Roe.

The director of King Lear is Selina Cartmell, with whom Roe worked on Titus Andronicus in 2005. If they can summon the same intensity that marked that production, then audiences are in for a treat.

“We’re very keen to tell the story,” says Roe. “It can’t be just a technical exercise in Shakespearean language, or a clean machine of a production. It has to be emotionally engaging. In the previews, we’ve had people crying, which is grand, because when you hear the sniffles, then, at least, you know the audience are engaged. It’s a very satisfying thing.”

Roe has performed in King Lear before. In 1991, he played the treacherous Edmund in a production that starred the veteran English thespian, Timothy West. Alas, West wasn’t overly taken with the audience, most of them teenagers studying the play for their Leaving Certificate.

“He wasn’t a happy man at all, God love him,” says Roe. “The schoolboys were knocking off to the jacks and drinking, and then coming back. I remember, once, he got really angry with them. He did the famous Dover scene and then he stormed offstage, only to slip on Gloucester’s eyeballs on the way out. It took about ten minutes to calm the audience down.”

Roe is not concerned about a similar fate, however. They were using plums for eyeballs in the 1991 production, but in this one they’re using a far more exotic fruit — a pair of lychees. “That’s how much we’ve progressed in Irish theatre,” Roe says. “You wouldn’t have got a lychee anywhere in Dublin in 1991.”

In addition to theatre, Roe is known for his turns in film (Intermission, Veronica Guerin) and television (Ballykissangel, Val Falvey TD), and his radio work on sketch shows like Scrap Saturday. He credits his mother, who died recently, with triggering his interest in acting.

“I was an only child and my mother used to bring me to the movies every day,” he says. “Where I lived, on Camden Street, there were three cinemas nearby and they changed the bill every Thursday. She picked me up after school and the two of us would go straight to the cinema. That went on from when I was five until when I was nine.

“You’d be in the Bahamas, or some amazing location from an awful movie with Rock Hudson in it. And then you’d walk out into the grim rain of 1960s Dublin. So I think, maybe, the acting came from that. But if you’re an only child, you do create your own little worlds, too.”

Poignantly, the presence of his late mother is acutely felt in the current production.

“My mother passed away during the rehearsals for Lear,” says Roe. “And she had suffered from dementia in the latter years of her life. So that has informed my performance of Lear. The first sign of her dementia was when she poured tea on to an up-ended cup and I have Lear doing that in this show. Everyone sees it and laughs.

“But he becomes conscious that there’s something not quite right in his head. I’m not being exploitative of it, but I have taken elements of my mother’s slide into another state of mind. That slide is not an easy thing to watch. The fact that she died while we were doing it has made me feel slightly guilty about taking those elements. But I’d like to see it as a tribute to her.”

* King Lear runs until Mar 23

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