Director Christian Weise on his production of Queen Lear, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Interview: Arno Widmann

AW: How did you hit upon the idea of staging King Lear now?

CW: Have you seen the BBC series Years and Years? It’s set between 2028 and 2034. A family in Manchester, embedded in an ever more disastrous global situation: bank failures, influxes of refugees, environmental catastrophes, an international shift to the political right. It presents our world today, just changed in a terrifying yet plausible way. This series made quite an impression on me. I have experienced two profound changes myself. I was a teenager of the turning point in 1989. Because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, my world changed from one day to the next. Afterwards there were 30 years of EasyJet capitalism. And then Covid took the world off its hinges.

AW: What does that have to do with King Lear?
CW: It is the play of the moment. There is a change in power at the beginning which completely transforms the entire world and the play’s characters. A singular experience – and afterwards no one is the person they once were. Today I’m witnessing much more intense changes in our world again.

AW: And why King Lear?
CW: I’ve already staged many plays by Shakespeare. For Lear I always thought about Corinna Harfouch. She is a Powerfrau and an idealist, and the role requires that combination. We’ve already worked with each other quite a bit and I’ve already told her a couple of times, hopefully you’ll be old enough for King Lear soon. Funnily enough, she has almost always played men in our collaborations – Macbeth, Don Quixote, Voland – the devil in the dramatisation of Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Then when I asked her about Lear and said, »Please play King Lear as Queen Lear«, she was surprised. We had to explain it all to her first, what we were planning.

AW: Who is we?
CW: Soeren Voima and I. Soeren Voima is a writing collective I’ve collaborated with for many years. At the Gorki Theatre we made Der kleine Muck and Othello. When I began researching Lear it was immediately clear to me that it’s the perfect material for Soeren Voima.

AW: Why is that?
CW: The play is, when it’s read in the context of today’s discoursearound gender equality, quite old-fashioned. Lear has three daughters. Cordelia is honest and good, and she is very important for the story, but doesn’t have much of a role over the course of the play. Both of the other daughters are, as the strong female characters in the play, purely malicious and nasty. I would definitely say that Shakespeare’s King Lear is misogynist. In our adaptation we turned Queen Lear’s rotten daughters into two sons and stuck with Cordelia as a daughter. When Corinna Harfouch accepted the role of Lear, there was no reason for the character to stay male in this implementation. A strong woman at the top introduces many associations. In the play’s other storyline, there’s the advisor Earl Gloucester and his sons Edmund and Edgar. Regarding these characters, it’s just as difficult today to make it plausible for Edmund to be shut out of the inheritance because he’s a bastard and for him to thus become profoundly evil. We turned Edgar into Sister Eddi, whose intelligence is the reason her mother Bossy Gloucester favours her. That hurts Sister Eddi’s brother, Proud Boy Edmund’s, male pride.

AW: How much Shakespeare is left in your adaptation?
CW: All of Shakespeare of course, just in a new garb. Voima and I are specialised, to a certain extent, in the adaptation of classic material. It is so much fun for us to read old material anew. We take the conflict, which is always excellent in Shakespeare, and apply it to a situation which is plausible today.

AW: And the language?
CW: The play Queen Lear now has its own new modern language which plays with the zeitgeist. Voima works very carefully through Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, however, even though there are structural changes.

AW: How do you go about staging the play?
CW: I’m a puppeteer. I look at the characters in the play as puppets. As types who have certain characteristics which must be readable. And I am a storyteller. Usually I create a closed world – that’s why I’m so dependent on designers – whose laws I must initially comply with in the staging so that I can break them later. In terms of direction, I build the actors a very narrow net for their characters, which has a lot to do with the rhythm and performance technique of comedy. When the processes are arranged tidily, it’s very fun to disrupt them.

AW: What does that mean for Queen Lear?
CW: In our production, the play is set in a cinematic future. On the one hand, it’s a content benchmark and on the other, it’s very practical: when Lear is thrown out of her empire by her sons, she sits on the apron of the Gorki’s stage right next to the audience. The thing I like about Shakespeare is that all of his plays take place on an empty stage. The world in which the play takes place must be asserted by the actors in their performances. In that set-up, both things are possible: the creation of a cosmos and the ability to leave it, to go to the audience and communicate directly. For me, that is theatre.

(from the season brochure #24)