"King Lear is not a nice guy," Stacy Keach says. "To play him as nice is a mistake." Keach is talking about Lear because, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago this month, he is portraying what is perhaps William Shakespeare's greatest character in what is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest play (Hamlet notwithstanding).
"Lear is a tyrant," Keach continues. And that's one reason, he says, this King Lear is set in the Eastern Europe of the 1940's and 50's — "“to suggest Tito, Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, Ceacescu of Romania — tyrants spoiled by power and their hunger for power." The director is Robert Falls, who is celebrating his 20th anniversary as the Goodman's artistic director. Falls also directed this year's Tony-nominated play Shining City on Broadway and won a Tony as Best Director for the 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman.
Keach has played many of Shakespeare's great roles, including Hamlet, Richard III, Falstaff, Coriolanus, Macbeth and Henry V. (He is also known for his portrayal of Mickey Spillane's noir detective Mike Hammer on TV in the 80's, and as Warden Henry Pope on the current TV series "Prison Break.") But the question is, why Lear, and why now?
"I figured I’d better do Lear before I get too old, so I can still move up the mountain," Keach says. "I think the role of Lear is always sitting there, waiting to be addressed, and attacked, and absorbed into the actor's psyche, the actor's soul. I always equate it with a mountain because it probably provides more challenges, both emotionally and physically, than do most all of Shakespeare's roles. It poses challenges that modern theatrical roles don't possess — the concentration, the physical prowess, the stamina. It's like Hamlet, only the older version."
Lear, Keach says, "makes a foolish choice — dividing his kingdom among his daughters based on vanity. He is basically a victim of the sin of pride, and he suffers the consequences of that bad decision." Lear's realization that he has done "wrong" comes very early in the play, Keach says. "The fact that he loses his grasp on reality and enters his own world of madness is emotionally challenging because it poses the problem for an actor of getting rid of all your preconceptions about how you're going to play any given moment."
It all has to flow from the subconscious, he says. "I think it's important to allow the character to play you. You have to be one with the character — you don't think about the lines, and the behaviors flow from you. That takes a lot of work. You first have to know the lines, the music — you have to know the music before you can understand how to play the role."
Lear, he says, "really touches the full range of human experience — love and hate, fear and guilt, self-deception, defensiveness. The storm inside him becomes the storm outside. And, of course, he's also a tyrant. I think that one of the great errors is to try to justify his actions, to make a moral judgment about his actions, rather than to play the fullness of his emotional stupidity."
It is perhaps the ultimate role, but are there any other Shakespearean characters Keach hasn't played that he would love to take on? "There's Prospero in The Tempest," he says. "And there's Iago in Othello. I've always wanted to play Iago. I love that character. I think he is one of the most brilliant creations of evil."