October 01, 2009

Coffee with the King

Filed under: Archive,Interviews

October 2009

John Gaden, back in Adelaide for State Theatre Company’s latest production, talks to Murray Bramwell about playing King Lear – for a third time.

John Gaden is, and has always been, one of Adelaide’s favourite actors. He performed at Theatre 62 in the late 60s, headlined often for the South Australian Theatre Company in its early years, and as Artistic Director from 1986 to 1989, he not only pulled the State Theatre Company out of the cactus, but established one of the most admired and popular programs in the company’s history. In tandem with Gale Edwards , Gaden staged plenty of Shakespeare – Much Ado, The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale and in 1988, leading from the front, a production of King Lear.

Now he’s back again, following on from a highly successful “year of the Bard” as he puts it – two seasons of Pericles with the Bell Company and an array of roles, including Falstaff (“sans padding”) in Benedict Andrews’s acclaimed eight hour marathon, The War of the Roses at the Sydney Theatre Company. Over coffee at the Festival Centre just before the day’s rehearsal begins, John Gaden is his familiar sharp self – engaged, genial and, as he delves into the play like a kingfisher on a pond, brilliantly lucid about his text.

I asked him first how the project came up.

“Adam Cook approached me nearly two years ago. He wanted to do Lear for this season and was I interested? He had wanted to do the play for a long time and also thought I had a connection of some kind. I thought ‘well, I’d love to.’ It’s one of those roles you can never get completely right, I think. So to have another go when I am closer to the designated age … it’s twelve years off. Lear says he is ‘fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less ‘ -which is an odd expression.”

Gaden has played Lear twice before – for Theatre 62 in 1967, in 1988 when he was 47 and now, in another 21 year increment, in 2009. He has avoided contact with other productions, he says. “I’ve never seen the film versions- the Brook, the Olivier, the Ian Holm.” Returning to the role, he says he doesn’t recognize himself. I ask if that is disconcerting, but he only laughs.

“When you come back to it you think- ‘ ah, I see what that’s about’ and you see it, not in an intellectual way, but an emotional way. For instance, when Lear talks about the mind ‘casting adrift’. When I was 50, my mind was not casting adrift, it was quite together, so I had to somehow intellectualize all that – but now my mind frequently casts adrift. I am sure that’s one of the great fears in the play – of the mind going into that great big nothing.”

He talks about the rigours of the role, of the savagery of Lear towards Cordelia in the “serpent’s tooth” speech (“I find it very hard to do that one”) and the turbulence in the character. “There is clearly rage and it is a huge driving force, and obsession fuels it and then overturns the mind. I think the play is more about the fear of madness than madness itself. As his wits begin to turn he is constantly asking ‘what’s happening to me ?’ It’s one of the things that makes it terrifying to play – it’s tough ! “

King Lear, directed by Adam Cook and designed by Victoria Lamb, opens in the Dunstan Playhouse on October 31.

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