Relishing the prospect of a rant

By Andrew Stone

After a lifetime devoted to Shakespeare, Michael Neill is preparing to play the Bard's demented monarch

Michael Neill returns to the stage to play King Lear. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Michael Neill returns to the stage to play King Lear. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Lear, suggests Michael Neill, is a good ranting part.

Neill, having spent a lifetime teaching and writing about Shakespeare, has arrived at a point where he can play the role. And so he is buried in the text of the great tragedy, committing lines to memory and getting his voice - which is rich and deep - trained for the part of King Lear.

The Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland has the plum role for the Summer Shakespeare production next March.

It is a landmark occasion - the 50th anniversary of the outdoor show, big enough to have attracted artistic heavyweights to collaborate on the production.

Direction is in the hands of Lisa Harrow, who played in the first Summer Shakespeare in 1963 when Hamlet was performed before she left for London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and an illustrious career in theatre, film and television.

Actor Michael Hurst will be performing the role of Fool, a part he filled in a Theatre Corporate production. For this play, Hurst expects to be "directing traffic", and keeping the show on the road.

Oscar-winner Ngila Dickson is costume designer, Alan Smythe - whose signature work includes operas and symphonies in the park - has weighed in on the stage design and veteran actor Ian Mune is playing the Earl of Gloucester. Sculptor Greer Twiss is consulting on set design and the artist and Elam Fine Arts Associate Professor Michael Parekowhai is lending a creative hand.

Neill, a world authority on Shakespeare, last had a part in a work by the playwright when he was cast as the Duke of York in a 1969 production of King Richard the Second, directed by the scriptwriter Michael Noonan.

"I've always wanted to do more Shakespeare on stage," he said.

"Then I stopped acting in the late 70s. I got too busy and thought there was too much vanity involved in amateur theatrics. It might seem an impossible paradox now that I want to perform this enormous role as an amateur."

Down the years, though, Lear was never far away and he could never quite let go of lines from the play.

"I thought, 'I know how to do those lines. I know what that voice should be like'."

As an amateur actor, he felt physically self-conscious, never quite knowing what to do with his arms and legs.

"Then it came to me that Lear is an old man so I shouldn't bother too much about the physical side of the character ... what he mainly has left is his voice. That's how I'm trying to think about it."

Neill remarked that one of the lessons of growing older was the tendency to get "more impatient at the folly of the world, with the sheer blockheaded stupidity of human beings".

King Lear, he said, contained that kind of anger.

"When we were all young in the 70s we were stupid enough to think we could change things. Now one just wants to rant. It's a good ranting part."

Neill, 70 this year, has just ended his estimable academic career teaching an honours course on Lear.

"Thinking about what happens after that is not all comfortable or easy. One has to pretend that life goes on even though it doesn't in the play."

Quite a bit remains to be done. A number of roles have yet to be filled, including Lear's daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Hurst, who will be co-director with Harrow, has been busy fundraising to secure the Summer Shakespeare tradition and twisting arms to assemble a small army for the Lear production.

Neill is discussing the script with another Auckland Shakespearean authority, Emeritus Professor Mac Jackson, to settle on the final text.

Hurst says he has spent time with Neill reflecting on the immense presence of Lear. The scholar in Neill had raised the reliability of various texts of the 400-year-old work.

Replied Hurst: "It doesn't matter how reliable they are, Michael, how reliable are you?"

Neill says he is excited about playing the signature role, and nervous too, especially with the herculean task of learning all the lines.

"Lear is built on a colossal imaginative scale. Most would say it's the greatest of all the (Shakespeare) tragedies that none of the others quite match."

He has talked to his brother, actor Sam Neill, about the role. Sam suggested he should have resumed the acting life with a Noel Coward work, which might have been a little less demanding.

"I don't think he's ever done a Lear. It's my time," laughed Michael, "to get one back at him."


King Lear
Summer Shakespeare at the University of Auckland in March 2013

- NZ Herald

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