"The whole tragedy is Cordelia's fault".
Bethan discusses her key scenes and relationships in the play, as well as her newfound ability: playing the concertina.
Time: 9 minutes 27 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
This is Rachel Ely and this is the second interview with Bethan Cullinane from this year’s production of King Lear at the Globe.
So, you’re in the third week of rehearsal. And what have you been doing in rehearsal so far?
So far: so, we’ve been through the play, just reading it ‘round the table, analysing it all and working out exactly what everything means. And now we’ve started to get it up on its feet, which is great! But very slowly. We’re sort of getting it up, talking it through who we’re talking to, and then sort of blocking it and seeing what happens. But, at the moment, instead of running too quickly, we’re sort of working out what everything means and exactly who we’re talking to so we have complete clarity.
Cool. And what relationships in the play do you think are important to your characters?
Good question. A lot of them! I think I’m finding out more and more about the fool’s relationship with Lear. And that’s becoming really interesting that it’s this strange dynamic where it’s almost... I mean, Lear calls the fool “boy” constantly, so it’s almost like father-son kind of dynamic. But then, the fool is able to say things to Lear that he wouldn’t take from anyone else and be completely honest. So, that’s a really important relationship. But then, I think especially because – particularly with the fool – he’s sort of in the background of a lot of big scenes without many lines, I feel like he has an opinion on everyone. And Kent, for example, I think that’s a very important relationship. We were talking about that today and we were doing the scene on the heath, where it sort of feels like Kent and the fool are the only people with sense anymore. They’re following Lear, but only to look after him. For the first time, it felt like they were kind of on the same level and they wanted the same thing. And as Kent kind of takes over from there, I think the fool becomes more and more redundant and then disappears.
And for Cordelia?
For Cordelia, we’ve only done the first scene, so I definitely have a lot more to learn about her. But the other obvious ones, really: her relationship with her father and her sisters, I think, are the most important. Yeah, I think the sisters even more so than their husbands because, although the husbands make a lot of the decisions as well, I think (for Cordelia) the blame is on her sisters. And when she leaves she says, “I would prefer him to a better place”. So, she already knows that they’re not going to treat him well. And, also, Cordelia’s relationship with Kent: you get this idea that they had quite a close relationship before she was exiled. And she’s kind of hoping that Gloucester and Kent – those people who she knows are loyal – are still loyal. And, yeah, that’s quite a strong relationship, so she’s trying to keeps them on her side even though she’s all the way in France.
Is there any scene or moment that you think is particularly significant in the interpretation of your characters?
Yeah. For the fool, I think one of the most revealing scenes is on the heath. Because you see the fool earlier on and he’s sort of all jokes: taunting Lear a little bit. But you definitely see him with more of a cover on. And on the heath, it totally becomes about this laughter situation, so that’s the way he talks: he talks in riddles, he talks in jokes, but the need and the want are much stronger in that scene – they’re much more exposed. So, for me, I love looking at that scene because all the stuff that is sort of hidden within jests and riddles and stuff (and it’s definitely there and I have to find it to be able to play it right in other scenes) is, kind of, in full-blown honesty in that scene on the heath, as I think it is for most of the characters. You know, the storm’s blowing everything away and it’s just stripping everybody down to what they really are.
And, for Cordelia, is there one moment in the play – even though you haven’t maybe gone over it as much [as the fool] – one moment that kind of sums her up?
Yeah. My instinct, straight away, is to say that the thing with Cordelia is I think that she really develops. And, at the end, when she sort of comes back as this warrior and sort of says, “go and find my father, I’m doing this for him,” you can see that there’s a lot of emotion there but she’s developed this maturity and pragmatism that doesn’t let the emotion get through so much. So, that’s sort of where she ends up. But I really do think more and more with the first scene – we were talking about this with Bill [Buckhurst] the other day, our director – and saying that actually, this whole tragedy is Cordelia’s fault, really. Because she could have just gone with the game, she could have just said, “Alright, I love you this much...” But she doesn’t. And it’s alright that she says, “I love you as much as I should love you, according to my bond”. And that’s perfectly fine. But she then goes on to say, “well, why do my sisters have husbands if they say they love you completely?” So, I’m sort of discovering more and more that she’s not... I mean, she’s is this honest – I think honest is the word, rather than pure – a very honest character in the way that she is quite like Lear at times. And she’s quite stubborn. So, I think maybe that first scene sort of shows Cordelia as she really is because she’s very honest. But not in a pure, sort of virginal way, where she says, “I love you this much and now I will keep silent”. She says, “I love you this much, I’ll be silent” and then goes on to say “Well, they’re lying. You don’t understand”. So, I think that is quite revealing. When I’ve read it in the past and sort of heard about it and looked at other actresses playing the part, I’ve always thought that she was, sort of, quite sweet and innocent. And, actually, there’s a hell of a lot more to her, which I like. And we’re hopefully going to get some warrior clothing when I come back as Cordelia.
I like that idea of her as a warrior and very cunning!
And have you done any text work for the characters? Is there anything you’ve noticed in the characters’ language that speaks to you?
Yeah, with the fool we’ve noticed this kind of rhythm (particularly, in the first scene when he comes in) that he doesn’t ever let Lear have the last word. And he’ll sort of knock you down with a joke. Before there’s time to come back, he’s cut you off with another one. And there’s kind of this repetition a lot throughout the scene. And also, he’ll sort of ask a question and he has this ability to lead you where he wants to go. So, for example, he says (to Lear), “can nothing come of nothing?” and Lear says, “Why, no boy. Nothing can come of nothing.” And, then the fool says to Kent, “Well, tell him how much the rent of his land comes to.” So, he constantly knows where he’s driving people – I don’t know if that makes any sense... it’s very complicated!
It’s interesting that you describe him [the fool] as a “he” because I think last time we spoke you weren’t sure... Have you decided yet?
Yeah, we weren’t sure. Yeah, I think it’s kind of driving towards a “he”. I think this dynamic of him being a boy and, as I said, Lear calls him “boy” a lot, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a boy. You could have an older man and that’s just a term of affection. But we quite like this idea that he is sort of a young boy. I think at this stage (and particularly with the nature of our production), I don’t want to go down the root of deciding to make him a woman, which brings a lot of – not baggage – but a lot more connotation to the play. Which I think can be fantastic and brilliant. But I don’t know if I want to go down that root. I sort of want to keep it quite honest to the text.
Well, then my last question is: what have been the highs and lows of the first few weeks of rehearsal?
Hmm... Highs and lows. Highs: definitely, sort of getting it up on its feet because I think it becomes a lot more clear when you can physically direct a line or a question towards a person, when you have someone to focus it on. I think when I’m sat down with a book I can get very confused and start to over think things. It’s meant to be acted, it’s meant to be spoken and I’ll sit there trying to analyse it all and I’m not getting anywhere. So, I think highs: probably, the first time we got the fool up on his feet. I understood it all; I understood what all the jokes were meant to be. But when we got it up on its feet there became this through line that made the fool very human, rather than somebody who kind of comes out with these jokes all the time. I started to understand his logic in that he thinks (in the way that anyone else does) he’s as vulnerable as anyone else is. And that he’s not just there to be funny. In terms of the audience watching him, he serves a purpose. So, I think getting him up on his feet was a high. And also, I’m learning the concertina to play with the fool! So, accompanying myself while singing... So, getting to know the concertina, which I’ve called, “Colin”: Colin, the concertina. So, that’s been great and I’m getting a lot more comfortable with that now! So, that’s a big high. A low is that Colin is sick. Yeah, his reed’s broken. But he’ll be ok. And also, another low: I suppose what I said before about getting bogged down in the text so much. But, it didn’t last long. So, it’s all part of the process, I guess.