The Almeida must have begun to feel like something of a second home to Kieran Bew by now: in the past 18 months he's acted in three shows at the theatre. Firstly, in what Susannah Clapp termed "a feministly thrilling cast-list," Bew played all the male roles, no less, in David Eldridge's addiction drama The Knot of the Heart. He then brilliantly brought to life an archetypal example of LaButean maleness as Kent in Reasons to be Pretty. And last month he finished playing a witty, wily Edmund in Michael Attenborough's production of King Lear, with Jonathan Pryce. Though currently busy filming a 5-part BBC drama series, Kieran kindly took the time to talk to One Stop Arts about his experiences in King Lear, reflecting on the particular pleasures and demands of the play, on what he likes most about performing at the Almeida, and on why playing Edmund can sometimes make an actor feel a little bit like Bill Hicks.
AR: King Lear remains one of the most highly regarded and frequently performed of Shakespeare's tragedies. What do you think are the reasons for the play's reputation?
KB: I think given the scale of the play, the ambitiousness of what he covers and the size of the cast, the reputation of the play is understandable. Before I read it, many people referred to it as their favourite play. I couldn't pinpoint one thing specifically, but perhaps it's the family: two families torn apart by money, greed, power. It's those base human desires that distract us from what really matters in life. Of course, the poetry's not bad either.
How would you describe the arc or journey that Edmund undergoes in the play?
Edmund is damaged; he is chronically human, fallible and hurting. I'd say it's a tragedy. If you label and mistreat people, they will become reactive. He has the capacity to be evil, but there is provocation. The vacuum created by Lear's actions gives him fertile ground to slither through. I'm not saying his evil deeds are legitimate or right, but I believe Shakespeare is warning us about the nature of prejudice.
How much fun was it to play the villain of the piece?
It is enormously fun to play the villain. They are often the engine of drama, and Shakespeare takes the edge off the severity of his deeds with the soliloquies. Ingratiating yourself with the audience with wit and charm helps keep it theatrical and fun for the audience. He's the anti-hero – hopefully; each performance is different. Otherwise he would be unbearably brutal and cruel.
Was there anything that you found surprising or unexpected about the play during the rehearsal period or in performance?
I found the journey of Kent to be incredibly moving. When you read a play with your character in mind you tend to concentrate on that. Watching Ian Gelder's very delicate portrayal of Kent was wonderful. Obviously Lear going mad is what people talk about, but seeing this friend, caring and desperately trying to reach a man who is slipping away was very beautiful. Those who care for the mentally ill, suffering through their love, it's quite brilliantly observed.
Is there a line/scene/moment that you particularly looked forward to performing every night?
I would look forward to the second scene, it has three soliloquies! Edmund lays down his case for action, asking the audience to go with him. He makes a very compelling argument with his first speech. The second is in prose and sometimes feels like a bit of a Bill Hicks stand-up routine. The challenge is of course in the live aspect of theatre; what worked and was charming last night may not necessarily work the next. That's why I love doing theatre. I might fall on my arse but at least I'm going to go for it.
Did anything surprise you about Edmund as a character, or about the audience reaction to him and the production generally?
In rehearsals, I found playing Edmund strangely lonely. He is incredibly quick-witted. He suits the manipulation to the person he is with so deftly, that you can end up feeling slightly hollow afterwards. Of course he feels elated with his success, but it's hard to separate your own feelings on the moment. Most of the time he plants the language of treason or doubt very delicately, and then uses his victims' paranoia or anger against them, like Iago. His vocabulary echoes theirs to create a feeling of collusion and trust. He is brilliant. But it can leave you feeling a little isolated. I'd have a soliloquy which, after five weeks rehearsing it to the wall, I was desperate to talk to the audience. Once we began performing, the interaction of the theatre was just wonderful. It's the third character you are missing in rehearsals, and suddenly there are so many more possibilities. Audiences at best participate in the action, and at the Almeida, even with the intimacy of the space they were not afraid to show their allegiance or distain. It's really fun having that push-and-pull with them. It was the same with Kent in Reasons to be Pretty and the reporter in The Knot of the Heart.
The audience reaction to the "incestuous" aspect of our show was surprising. I was largely unaware of that colour given Edmund is in the other thread of the play. Sometimes with a classic, particularly one which so many people have studied at school, there is a great sense of ownership as to what a play should be about. Shakespeare has such depth and is so multi-layered that there will be thousands of productions highlighting some bits and not others.
I also think it's great if the work is provocative and gets people thinking and talking. In the last two plays I did at the Almeida, there was plenty to get upset about. Its good when people's ideas are challenged, not in a gratuitous way, but surely that's what theatre is for, to get us thinking and debating?
Unlike many current productions of Shakespeare plays, your production was traditional: it didn't seek to make obvious parallels with the modern world or "current events". As an actor, what's your attitude to modern-dress productions of Shakespeare? Do you have a preference for modern or more traditional approaches?
It's strange that the word "traditional" gets used almost as a derogatory term. Our play was set in a nowhere time, really, a pagan-esque world with swords, wheelchairs and electric lighting. I loved the asylum-like feel of the castle.
For me the most important thing about the play and the interpretation is the human element. Clarity: Do you relate to this? Do you identify as a human being? Shakespeare has written these extraordinary, well-rounded, flawed, contradictory people. They are us. If a concept or a setting is getting in the way of you hearing the play or the poetry, what's the point?
I don't think Shakespeare needs to be updated or signposted with a modern setting necessarily, but of course it's wonderful to see the parallels. Greg Doran's Julius Caesar and Ralph Fiennes' film of Coriolanus for example, I thought were brilliant. And I loved the setting Tom [Scutt] and Mike [Attenborough] chose for King Lear. It allows you to play the play. Having said that, I'd love to do Shakespeare set in space... can anyone make that happen?
Do you remember the first Shakespeare play or production that had an impact on you as a reader/audience member?
The first play to have a major impact on me was Richard II. I asked an English teacher from my school to help pick scenes for my audition. I had never even heard of it. He chose a few soliloquies and I just fell in love with it. The complexity of language and poetry were totally new to me. I struggled with spelling and English at school; I was intimidated and felt like it wasn't something I was capable of doing. I had terrible marks in my work. Acting changed that completely. I found that once I was speaking it and seeing it as people rather than an academic exercise, I could learn. Before that it was incredibly frustrating.
I watched the Derek Jacobi version filmed for the BBC and thought yep, that's what I want to do. Coriolanus was another, I studied it at drama school and learned most of it off by heart. I used to carry copies of both around with me.
You've performed at the Almeida in several different shows now. What do you like most - or find most challenging - about the space?
I love the intimacy of the Almeida; the staff are so friendly and it has such a great history of shows. I feel very lucky to have been part of it while Mike Attenborough has been in charge. I think what I enjoy most is the warmth of the space; you are close to the audience but still on a "stage". You can really feel the temperature of the audience. Which, of course, with a play dealing with heroin abuse, was incredibly moving. Thank god I had some moments of comedy in that one. In Neil LaBute's play, I could actually feel the hatred emanating from the female audience members. There was a line I had which would shift them from, "Oh, he is a lovable douchebag" to "I want to cut off that guy's nuts!" Getting to chat and befriend them as Edmund was great fun. It's a very cool theatre.