Kevin R McNally stars in King Lear live at Shakespeare's Globe Kevin R McNally stars in King Lear live at Shakespeare's Globe
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How to perform Shakespeare's greatest role and still have time for a pint

We spoke to Kevin R McNally, star of the Globe's new production of King Lear, about livening up the famous tragedy and why the cameras better keep up on the night of our live screening.

Gracie Lofthouse.

What was your first thought when you got the part?

Oh, f***. It’s supposed to be the greatest role any actor can ever play. It’s famously very hard work. But I thought if I don’t do it, I’ll probably regret it for the rest of my life.

Had you really never read it before?

I’d never read it or seen it, which meant I I didn’t have the weight of all those performances I’d seen hanging over me.

I’ve watched YouTube clips of of Sir Ian McKellen, Antony Sher, Olivier, Simon Russell Beale, but mostly to get a sense of how to cut it down. I said to Nancy [Meckler, the director] that I didn't want to be in a four and a half hour production. The pubs close at a certain time. Why would you want to still be in the theatre at 11:30?


Kevin R McNally stars in King Lear live at Shakespeare's Globe
What had to go?

Anything that was specifically resonant to the Elizabethan mind that isn't to ours now. And the parts where characters come on and explain things that have happened off-stage. Nancy had an idea to show these parts instead. There’s a lot of stuff about the affair Edmund has with the two sisters. We show them shagging in a cage.

How have you managed to make Shakespeare's greatest tragedy funny?

There are awkward moments. Lear’s suffering from dementia. My mother died of dementia. There were some hysterical moments before she went.

People are scared of comedy in Shakespeare. They're worried you're undermining the tragedy. But it makes the tragedy even more wrenching. I’ve had people say to me they've never cried so much at a production.
Kevin R McNally stars in King Lear live at Shakespeare's Globe
Early on when I forgot a line, I found the best thing to do was to start crying and grab somebody and let the other bugger sort it out.
What's the funniest thing that's happened on stage so far?

Early on when I forgot a line, I found the best thing to do was to start crying and grab somebody and let the other bugger sort it out.

Does that really work?

Every time. Just start crying and then somebody goes "oh f*** it's me next, right, I'll start talking."

What's your least favourite thing about playing Lear?

That he goes mental at his two daughters, storms off stage and within 90 seconds you’re back on doing the storm scene. It's exhausting.

What makes this King Lear different from all the others?

It doesn't have a famous classical actor in the lead role. Just after I got the part, I found out Sir Ian McKellen's doing it at Chichester. I thought, what would I do if people said to me, why would I come see you and not Sir Ian McKellen? My answer is that I'm doing it in Southwark and he's doing it in Chichester. So for 90% of the country, I'm closer. And his isn't going to be in the cinema.

I also wanted to try and have all the Lears in one go. I wanted him to be playful, demented, loving, angry, terrifying, mad, pathetic, tragic and uplifting. That’s a big list. I didn’t just want him to be a regal Lear, or a bonkers Lear. By the end, he's this complete mosaic of a human being.
Kevin R McNally stars in King Lear live at Shakespeare's Globe
People are scared of comedy in Shakespeare. But it makes the tragedy even more wrenching. I’ve had people say to me they've never cried so much at a production.
What will you be thinking on the night of the live-streamed performance?

I'm not going to think about it. Everytime I go on, I'm finding new stuff. I don't want to stop doing that just because there are cameras there. If the whim takes me I'll do something different. The cameras just better keep up.

How do you make a four hundred year play relevant?

Nancy’s framed it as being about a bunch of dispossessed people breaking into the theatre to do the play. It’s not about an actual king in pagan Britain. It's about power and love and loss and dispossession. I don't have to stand around thinking, what do kings act like? I don't really care what kings act like. I care about what it's like to be a parent.

Will we ever stop showing Shakespeare?

I think as long as there’s any sort of culture, any place for self analysis and exploring what it means to be human, we'll always have Shakespeare. It's not just us – it's all over the world. They don't even have his verse. They're just telling the stories.

It’s everywhere. Like a rash.

Catch our live screening of the Globe’s King Lear on 21 September.