Paul Whitworth Shines as King Lear

Whitworth’s Lear inspired tears and a standing ovation at Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s opening night

Paul Whitworth made a triumphant return to the Santa Cruz Shakespeare stage on Friday for the opening night of King Lear. Theater fans responded with a resounding standing ovation, rewarding the entire cast and production team for a spectacular show. Paul Mullins directed Whitworth and a talented cast who managed the difficult script with grace. Everything came together in concert, from the lighting and the set design to the remarkable costumes and props, to create a vivid and vital version of one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies.

One of the best things a production of King Lear can do is simply to show the audience the story, to lay bare the characters’ undoing. Mullins’ staging elucidates the text, renders the plotlines legible for the audience’s explication, and delivers a cogent and potent version of things as they undergo transformation. Much of the play is about madness, and this wildness of soul and mind is best viewed through a sober and rational framing. Mullins’ austere and formal placement of players on the stage serves as a powerful counterpoint to the unhinged state of the characters as they descend into a hellish world of power unleashed.

Whitworth displays a remarkable range of tone and feeling as he winds his way through a mad and destructive path. The play asks us vital questions about power, loyalty, and betrayal. It shows us the agony of loss and the difficulty of complicated grief. To do this, Whitworth must transform from proudly regal, to violently rageful, to bewildered in rags, and finally to regretful and frail. This emotional journey is achieved with a virtuosic performance as Whitworth makes the language his own and appears to think the lines into being, to cough up the poetic phrases in response to the things he sees and feels. For anyone who loves theater, this is a remarkable thing to witness.

Whitworth is not alone in his greatness, thankfully. The entire cast shines like royal jewels and they each leap powerfully over the bar set by the Bard in this challenging monarchic tragedy. This is a play that demands full concentration of artistic power. Goneril and Regan, played by Paige Linsey White and Kelly Rogers, are twinned in their descent into murderous rage and intertwined in a growing blood lust for Edmund. Goneril and Regan are selfish and mad with power to the point of sororicidal rage. Their deception and cruelty must be countered by a virtuous and loyal Cordelia. Without our sympathy for Cordelia, the tragedy simply will not work.

Yael Eve answers this call beautifully. Punished for her honesty at the beginning of the play, Eve’s Cordelia stoically fights for her father despite his many faults. It is her clarity of tone and consistency of character that bring the emotional punch to the play’s famous conclusion.

The villainous subplot of Edmund against his brother and father is also expertly played by M.L. Roberts, Junior Nyong’o, and Derrick Lee Weeden. Roberts embodies the evil of Edmund the bastard ascending briefly to a status of power and desire. His dastardly addresses to the audience illuminate a dark inner world of a man obsessed with overcoming his illegitimacy. Roberts’ charm brings the audience as close as possible to empathizing with a thoroughly villainous character.

Nyong’o delivers a world class performance as the trusting brother Edgar and his transformation into his alias Poor Tom who hides in the identity of what Lear calls “the thing itself, unaccommodated man,” when they meet in the storm. Disguised as a beggar, Nyong’o wins our hearts through his loyalty to Lear and his father, Gloucester. When he delivers the lines that we must bear “the weight of these sad times” he speaks to the audience as much as to the remaining cast.

Derrick Lee Weeden captivates our attention and captures our sympathy as a father who is undone by his son. As Gloucester’s fate unwinds, our affection for Edgar and our antipathy towards Edmund accelerate exponentially. When we witness Weeden “see it feelingly” it is impossible to look away from his confrontation with mortality.

Patty Gallagher once again wins the day with another outstanding performance. The Earl of Kent is brave, loyal, and fights till the end for the welfare of their King and country. Gallagher is the perfect actor to play this part as they possess all the charisma required to shine through a dark night of England’s soul. The loyalty of Kent is a necessary antidote to the various treasonous acts displayed throughout the play and Gallagher makes us proud to root for this noble character.

It may seem strange for a tragedy to feature a fool, but this play would not work without this element of comic relief. Sofia Metcalf masterfully fulfils this vital role clowning Lear with wise quips. Metcalf has earned their laurels this summer filling the stage with upbeat energy and a vibrant voice. The scenes with the fool, Lear, and Poor Tom are as good as theater gets.

Rex Young and Charles Pasternak remind us that all roles can be made mighty by powerful actors. Young comes to understand the true nature of his wife’s intentions and takes important action. Pasternak is swept up in the surge of power and is carried away with rageful cruelty. Both actors relish in their parts and complete the cast. Altogether, there is not a wasted movement, an unnecessary gesture, and it is the restraint and focus of the acting that makes this such a great production of a remarkable play.

Tickets are sure to sell out, so if you want to experience this powerful play, now is the best time to secure your seats. You can purchase the remaining tickets at santacruzshakespeare.org.

An Interview with Paul Whitworth

Hi. My name is Paul Whitworth, and I am playing the role of King Lear this summer.

Well, when I stepped down as artistic director of the company, which was a long time ago, in 2007, I worked with the company since 1984, and I thought it was time to step back good and proper. So, I made a resolution to only work in other cities outside Santa Cruz or to work at the Jewel Theater in Santa Cruz, but not to work at the festival.

I’d done a lot of Shakespeare since I was a schoolboy of ten years old, and I thought it was time for a break.

But then Mike did this extraordinary thing and transformed Shakespeare, Santa Cruz into Santa Cruz Shakespeare, and moved from the Glen to the Grove and basically saved the company when it was in jeopardy, which happened in about 2013, 14.

And he has from time to time mentioned that he’d like to have me do something and it has been a question of timing. But then when I realized that this was Mike’s last season, and I first invited Mike to join the company when he was a young lad in 1997, in my second season, he played Sylvia’s in As You Like It.

And since then, he’s become one of my best friends. And I hugely admire his work, both as an actor and as an artistic leader. So, when he said he was stepping down after this year and how did I feel about King Lear, I was very, very interested.

I’ve been offered King Lear twice before and turned it down and I’ve never done it. And so, now’s the time.

Is a huge challenge. It’s one of the you know, it’s one of the great the great challenges like Hamlet, Henry the fifth, Iago. And I’ve been lucky enough to play those three. So why not?

I’ve grown this absurd beard, which goes with the territory. People talk about it in the play.

it’s a huge play.

People have a sort of the thing about King Lear, it’s a bit like Beethoven’s Ninth. They talk about it in these exalted terms, but in many ways the mysterious thing about Lear is that it is greater than the sum of its parts, which is really odd. It’s a play whose trigger is two people, one an illegitimate young man who has no status in the world and who is trying to get some by hook or by crook.

And the other plot is triggered by an old man who is a king, King Lear, who has decided it’s time to retire. He thinks he’s getting a little past it and there’s some worrying symptoms. But he has no sons. He just has three daughters. And there’s an ancient fairy tale that springs from about a man holding a competition to ask which daughter loves him most.

And he’ll give the most important part of the kingdom to her. So, there are these two men at either end of life who trigger a sort of double plotted play.

Something about Shakespeare’s language makes this play into something which is much greater than the sum of its parts, and which is led to all kinds of critics and actors and directors making extraordinary claims for it.

It’s one of the great poetic texts of any sort, any genre. It’s a great poetic text, but it’s also a play which I think even though it’s about kings and it’s set in a, you know, a remote time, I think it’s also a family drama. Both that young man and the old king are members of a family and they play out their story within a family network.

Along with great love, can come moments of fantastic hatred.

Family roles have a special agony of their own because love and hate are intertwined.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I don’t think that’s foreign to anybody–the mysterious thing in humanity which can bubble up, an almost incoherent lava of emotion, which is triggered by love and hate in a family context, really throws us all back on territories, which I guess are a minefield for psychiatrists, but which interested Shakespeare. There he has various characters like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, who in a moment turn from a proud husband to a jealous one.

And I think Shakespeare in this play more than perhaps any other, is interested in that lava within us, which can be ignited by small and trivial family things, but which reaches something which is frightening very quickly. And I think that’s something that everybody can respond to. And when you are frightened by the hatred within you, the anger, the disappointment, the fear of frailty,

That confrontation with the dark matter of the psyche makes us very aware of the importance of love and transcendence and acceptance of our lot, which is kind of inspiring and dare I say, almost hopeful.

Acting is a sort of metaphor for the different hats you have to wear in as a powerful person.

He was both the playwright and actor. And I think the construction of identity and the possibility of change and growth within one’s identity is very much connected. I mean, Shakespeare explores that theme through role playing. That’s his natural go to place, is how do we adapt, how do we mature, how do we develop, how do we disintegrate?

And that is done with this idea that one can shift shape, that there is a metaphor for an ability for metamorphosis in all of us, and we try things on.

I mean, it’s part of learning, isn’t it? Little children try on characters and big words and see how they fit. And I think that’s part of how all Shakespeare characters operate.

There is another thing at work here, because for Shakespeare, who lived when we still live in a time of a monarchy in England, but Shakespeare had a fascination with kings like Richard, the second and the third, and both of which I’ve been lucky enough to play. The King embodies the land as well as his own body. And that, of course, is a very tall order. I mean, we just saw this idea in the coronation of Charles the third in London.

He was anointed as well as being crowned.

That’s where that idea comes from, that there is a sort of spiritual connection which is not political, but a sort of bonding of the monarch with the land.

And I think in Shakespeare’s imagination, as Lear unravels as a man, the country unravels around him, and the two things are connected.

He creates a vacuum of power at the center by some very dodgy decisions that he makes. And you watch a country fall apart very quickly. And that is no strange thing in this world. I mean, watching what is happening in the world at the moment, in various parts of the world where you see appalling savagery.

People have argued long and hard about how much he perceives at the end, but we definitely perceive as we watch it. I mean, I think the exhilarating thing, if that’s a better word, than hope for the exhilarating thing about this play, is that it dares to confront the worst.

It dares to look at how we can swing into savagery, madness, how frail human kindness and human institutions and decency and government is frail, very frail.

And there’s something about confronting the worst in us, which this play does.

It’s kind of shocking when you lose your temper.

I think most of us can remember it from childhood, and most of us choose to pretend we don’t do it anymore.

But when you do, you lose your temper, something you touch, something which is scary.

And this play touches many things which are very scary in both men and women.

And, you know, everybody’s life ends in one way, our days are numbered, each and every one of us.

There’s something about this play which confronts the big questions, the last things, what we hang on to, what is worth hanging on to, what is worth resisting.

And there is something exhilarating in daring to look dissolution in the face, which is uplifting.

I mean, we survive, but we only really survive with triumph if we’ve hit the bottom and the top.

I had a weird upbringing because my father worked for the Foreign Service, so he was posted from country to country.

I’d seen plays and I had grown up hearing other languages spoken around me. I grew up in Greece for many years, from 5 to 12. I was taken to Epidaurus in the Greek theater when I was a kid and got very upset because a hero walked on the stage holding the hand of a little boy. And I was really quite cut up that that wasn’t me. I thought that was just fascinating.

Anyway, I went off to boarding school when I was ten and I started acting there and I and the school was very good in that it was the same boarding school that Roald Dahl was at a place called Repton, an old school founded actually during the Elizabethan time in 1559.

We were near there enough to Stratford, near enough to Nottingham, and were taken to see things. I did see a production of King Lear when I was at the junior school. We were bused to the senior school, and I saw a production of King Lear, which I think is the first Shakespeare play I saw live.

There were no girls in the school. So, Cordelia was a young boy whose voice hadn’t broken. It had gone real did her Regan King Lear must have been all of 17.

I didn’t have a clue what was going on. But I knew I was in the presence of something shocking and thrilling and deeply exciting without being in any way able to articulate why I felt that.

I went off to university and I did I went to, first of all, to St Andrew’s as an undergraduate and then to Oxford as a postgraduate.

And neither of those universities have drama departments, so I studied Spanish and Portuguese literature, but I did an enormous amount of acting as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate.

I was acting so much at Oxford that I actually had an agent in London and, I wrote a letter to the Royal Shakespeare Company and asked for an audition, and I got in.

And so, I abandoned my graduate studies and walked into my first professional rehearsal room, the first company meeting for the 1976 Stratford Company, which today reads like a sort of who’s who it was. You know, Judi Dench was there, and Ian McKellen was there. And Trevor Nunn was there, and Peter Brook was there, and John Barton was there. And Richard Griffiths, the uncle from Harry Potter, was there. I mean, it was an astonishing company.

So I got to work with Patrick Stewart and all these wonderful actors

In my first season I was in King Lear as a soldier. I helped put Gloucester’s eyes out. Judi Dench was Regan, who we had some hysterical times rehearsing that because she kept getting the giggles.

And later here I played the Fool to Tony Churches’ Lear.

That’s my experience of the play. Seeing it as a as a maybe 12-year-old, being in it as a as a spear carrier at Stratford, playing the fool to Tony and now playing Lear.

I was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 76 to 82.

And then in 1984, somebody I knew well at the R.C. Tony Church had come here to do the first season of the what was then Shakespeare, Santa Cruz. He played King Lear in 1982, and he talked about it. And then when he was invited back in 84 to play Falstaff in Henry four, part one, he and Audrey Stanley invited me to come and be Prince Hal, and that’s how my association started with things here. And then I later became artistic director.

I had only ever been to America for the first time in 1982 when I was touring with a small group from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I had lived in South America as a child, but I hadn’t been to North America.

It wasn’t a culture shock because having grown up in Greece and Portugal and Chile and Spain in terms of vegetation and latitude and olive trees and vines and the Spanish language, this was not a culture shock. The fog was a culture shock.

That doesn’t happen in the Mediterranean.

The other thing that was refreshing and exciting was the connection between the university and the professional theater, because that hadn’t existed at Oxford–certainly not in any formal way. So, I loved the hand in hand academic and artistic exploration of theater. And I loved the avenue for the students to come and work with professionals and meet grad students from Yale and Harvard and NYU and all of, you know, UC San Diego, all the good grad students.

We had a whole intern program where there was a wonderful interface for undergraduates here. It was an extraordinary program and a tragedy that the university in 2013 and was so fit to close it. It was it was an unfortunate thing in both town gown relations and a tragic thing for undergraduate education.

Well, you know, in the founder of Shakespeare, Santa Cruz, Audrey Stanley was deeply imbued in ancient Greek drama. And her whole idea of a drama festival is, after all, an ancient Greek concept.

I have actually never been in an ancient Greek play.

I played Lysander in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I was in a brilliant production of Love’s Labor’s Lost in Stratford. I was in a fantastic and Much Ado About Nothing with Judi Dench as Beatrice.

I love playing Benedick here at the festival, so I’ve done I’ve done my fair share of comedy.

I have played some serious roles. I enjoyed a wonderful streak of villains. I played Tartu in my first year in 96, Iago, Richard, the third in 97 and the Argo in 98. And I found I was on a sort of a very, very villainous roll at that time.

I enjoyed exploring people who were eaten up by some kind of desire to behave badly towards other human beings. And I found that interesting, which is different from tragedy, of course, and has its comic elements.

What was it like to learn that the University was not going to continue Shakespeare Santa Cruz?

Oh, that was that was heartbreaking.

I was actually stopped on the street in New York City by somebody who loved the festival and said, what is the university doing?

you know, there are like all like the causes of the Trojan War. You can talk to many people and get many different stories as to why this vast San Andreas fault shook the festival into bits that year.

It was a mixture of economy, shortsightedness and a curious mixture of personalities in key positions who did not get on. It was vulnerable and nobody had the long sighted judgment to realize that this situation would right itself.

So, it was it was a short-sighted judgment, I think.

The move away from the university has not all been bad. There are advantages. I think there is more ownership from the community of the festival, which is a great thing.

There is a certain freedom. For example, I remember years ago we were just about to open a play which needed swords and we bust a sword in a rehearsal just before we opened.

I won’t go into the details, but you can you can imagine if you would need a purchase order through the university for a weapon in 24 hours.

The bureaucracy of UCSC is not nimble for finding a sword in 24 hours.

There are many advantages to this. I think,

It is the academic mission of the university, for which I grieve most.

They have shortchanged their students by removing this window, this brilliant window on the profession with all its dramaturgy and exploration of Shakespeare’s language and other great plays.

You know, we’ve talked a lot about Shakespeare, but we’ve done, you know, Moliere, we’ve done Ibsen, we’ve done Chekhov, we’ve done great playwrights alongside Shakespeare. This year it happens to be a contemporary one. But we have a long tradition of exploring great plays at this festival, and that was a huge that’s been a huge loss to the academic mission of the university.

I call London home and I call Santa Cruz home.

I have a place to live in both. I’m lucky enough to have a place to live in both cities.

I have an American wife who’s a marvelous playwright called Kate Hawley.

So, depending on circumstances of work or whatever we’re doing, we spend either more or less time here or there. My most of my family is in England.

I call both places same. But I am used to that because as I said right at the beginning, my dad worked for the British government, but we always lived abroad.

There was always somewhere else apart from England.

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