A production of King Lear might see the abbey in Kilmallock transformed by ‘festival theatre’ and bring large numbers to the picturesque town. Alan Owens finds out more.
WHO is it that can tell me who I am?’ ponders King Lear, the aging monarch who decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters in Shakespeare’s classic text, widely proclaimed as one of the greatest tragedies in English literature.
Standing in the ruins of the Dominican Abbey in Kilmallock, with dark, threatening skies overhead, a sleight rain falling and a bitter wind whistling through the ruins of the 13th century building, the Bard’s words were never more spine-tingling.
When delivered by the awesome thespian Des Keogh - an energetic, mesmerising 77-year old steeped in acting pedigree - they are positively and profoundly affecting. Standing to his right, anguish on his face, is the world-renowned Shakespeare scholar, teacher and actor Rob Clare, the men exchanging lines with careful precision, emotion wretched on their faces as they deliver one of the most compelling sequences in the play.
This is a work-in-progress presentation of promenade theatre, as funded by the Arts Council of Ireland, as to the possibilities of producing King Lear in County Limerick, particularly in the historic abbey at some point in the future, which would have a massive knock-on effect on the picturesque medieval town.
Keogh is the star turn among a rich cast of local actors that includes Liam O’Brien - the producer and spearhead of the project - Myles Breen and Valerie O’Connor, but the real thrill is seeing the abbey act as a backdrop to the tempestuous words Shakespeare wrote nearly 450 years ago.
The idea for the project germinated several years ago when O’Brien attended a production in nearby Friars’ Gate Theatre, which began with an pre-performance assembly at the abbey. The local actor immediately thought of Shakespeare, and an idea for utilising the ruin was born.
Six months later O’Brien met Clare in California when studying with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the men struck up a friendship. When the Limerick actor began to put together an application for the funding of such a production, he remembered Clare immediately.
“I applied to the Arts Council for a theatre creation project grant, which doesn’t require that you do a performance, but it does support you to develop the concept around such an idea,” explains Liam, a founding member of Bottom Dog Theatre Company in Limerick.
“I put in an application to develop the concept around a promenade version of King Lear - which I haven’t seen done before - and very much based in the Mid West, which is where my focus is. I attached Rob’s name, we put in an application and were lucky to get it.”
The production received close to €20,000 from the state body to develop and study the feasibility of the project, which resulted in two weeks work on the ground in Kilmallock, working in tandem with Caoimhe Reidy in Friars’ Gate and, with help from Limerick County Council’s arts office.
“Elements of this process were about checking the feasibility (of a production), but on top of that it was a project supported to try and engage top level talent, which would be Rob, and bring him to work with local theatre practitioners,” explains Liam.
“That funding supported Rob and I to work together, Emma Fisher (stage designer) to come on board and work with us in Limerick for a couple of weeks - and at least half of that grant went on the two weeks in Kilmallock, wages, accommodation, travel - allowing us to put the money directly into the town.
“It was an investment in people, in the time to work on a particular artistic impulse, and from my point of view I will never approach Shakespeare in the same way and I am totally invigorated by the process,” he adds.
Clare is equally effusive about a project both men hope will lead to an “event” and bring large numbers of punters to the abbey and in turn to the town.
“One of the things that is clear to me straight away is that it is not just feasible, it is more than viable, it is a fantastic location,” says Clare immediately after the actors stage seven scenes from King Lear in and around the abbey, where he acts as director and narrator for the audience, explaining the potential of a full production as he goes and we trail him.
“The ruin itself yields such a variety of tremendous spaces and backdrops and it absolutely reflects the spectrum of possibility that is in the play itself,” he explains.
“Lear is Shakespeare’s most sweeping, all encompassing and variegated tragedy, it changes tone and location almost more than any of his other works. It is a whole tapestry of life, and yet there is something about this stately ruin; it has grandeur, it has primeval strength, an almost primitive power to it, and yet it is dislocated and broken as well and that is very much what the play is about. It is a perfect setting.”
The actor, who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, says he would envisage a full-scale production as having 12-16 actors, with musicians linking scenes between the action in the abbey.
“What is clear is that moving the audience around the ruin is going to be a brilliant thing to do,” he observes.
“The problems that obviously emerge, in terms of conundrums to be solved, are how does one move the audience around the space without losing the dyanmism of the play? And it is quite clear that what we need is linking segments between scenes.
“We will need ways to manage that, and that is good, it is exciting and it opens it up to new creative, artistic possibilities.”
Both Clare and O’Brien readily admit that the ambitious scale of the concept of the production means it would not pay for itself on box office alone and would require “sponsorship and support in the right areas”.
“We are hopeful that we can persuade those areas that it is a viable project,” says Clare. “I do have to say, this ruin is the best space I have seen. It is in wonderful condition, it is really unspoilt, it hasn’t been over extended. The potential is here for an amazing production and I would love to see it happen,” he adds.
O’Brien holds the key to this and must apply to the Arts Council for full funding. He admits it is an ambitious idea, but says “all great ideas are”.
“It is hard to know in this climate, but the Arts Council have supported it and invested a significant amount of money in the project, so they have certainly seen the potential and they want to support theatre regionally,” he explains.
“They have shown great support for the initiative, which was to develop the concept for a promenade production and to give a fully realised vision of what it could look like. We are now going to submit that evidence to them as part of the process and I will very much be applying in the future to try and get money to stage a full production, and that will have to be tailored by what we have learned along the way,” he adds.
The result could be of huge benefit to the town, leading to an event O’Brien sees as akin to a rock concert, or festival theatre with lots of accompanying events and add-ons.
“I would like to see it being an event, not just a night in the theatre, but a night out, something that people from all of the bordering counties would come to,” he explains.
“There might be interaction with local musicians, artisans, craft fairs - make a really big event on the outside and allow people to retreat into the atmosphere of it all. It is a very difficult time at the moment for everybody in the country and certainly difficult to achieve funding, but we have got a step on the ladder, and we have the raw materials to do it.”