Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Edmund Dehn: Lear Alone

By | Published on Monday 12 July 2021

The burgeoning of digitally delivered culture during lockdown, while the result of necessity, has led to some incredibly interesting projects and a host of fantastic theatrical works to take in at home.

The latest such project to catch my eye was ‘Lear Alone’ – from And Tomorrow Theatre Company – a Shakespearean adaptation set to grace screens in five instalments starting this week. It’s presented in partnership with homelessness charity Crisis.

It’s a one man drama starring veteran actor, and company co-founder, Edmund Dehn. I spoke to him to find out more.

CM: Can you start with an overview of what to expect from ‘Lear Alone’? Whose story does it actually tell?
ED: ‘Lear Alone’ is a one-man web series based on the character of Shakespeare’s Lear – a king who abdicates his throne and loses everything.

We tell the story of an actor who chooses to leave the safety of his care home to “give” his Lear. He wanders the streets of London performing in iconic London locations to an audience that only exists inside his head. You only hear his words and you only see him.

Our adaptation of the play focuses ruthlessly on Lear’s isolation. You only ‘see’ the other characters through his eyes and his – at times confused – mind.

CM: The Shakespearean text is used in the films to explore social isolation, and homelessness and ageing – how do the Lear extracts fuel that exploration? How does the play lend itself to this project?
ED: To be clear, we don’t use extracts, I speak, and you will see, every single word as spoken by Lear in Shakespeare’s play. Our story is about two men: the actor playing Lear and the king he plays.

Lear has everything: money, power, palaces, servants; you name it, he has more of it than he needs. And he loses it all. Suddenly he is homeless, alone and going mad; an 80 year old, he finds himself without a roof over his head in a thunderstorm. If it can happen to a King, it can happen to anyone.

The actor too leaves safety to wander the streets pursuing his dream and becomes homeless.

They are both illustrations of – and metaphors for – the situation in which more and more older people have found themselves in recent years: feeling lonely, abandoned and confused and all too often in dire financial straits.

Indeed, figures from the Office Of National Statistics in 2019 showed that the number of older people in England seeking help for homelessness had risen by 39 per cent in the previous five years, a growing problem that has only been compounded by the pandemic.

We are very grateful – but also, speaking personally, a little nervous and humbled – that Crisis has done us the honour of partnering with us and, while the web series is free to view, we are accepting donations to Crisis.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about how it came together? Are the performances all entirely Shakespeare’s words?
ED: After And Tomorrow Theatre Company formed, we produced ‘Death Of A Hunter’, a one-man show about Ernest Hemingway, at the Finborough Theatre in 2018. We have since been looking for “the next thing” and ‘King Lear’ had been a consideration for some time – not least because I had always wanted to play the part!

When lockdown happened we arrived at the idea of a one-man Lear! One actor, one director and one cameraman, filming “guerrilla style” on the streets of London – we wouldn’t even break the rules. And the themes of loneliness and loss, homelessness and indeed madness fit so well with what we have all experienced over the last eighteen months.

As for the words, as I say, I speak every word of Lear’s part in Shakespeare’s play and nothing else. There are two very small exceptions: I hum along to a tune that the Fool sings, but you never hear the words; and the actor gets text messages on his mobile phone that Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, didn’t write!

CM: So lockdown was the inspiration behind this approach?
ED: When lockdown happened, we were all wondering if we were ever going to get back inside a theatre again. And when we talked about a one-man ‘King Lear’, we realised that COVID had given us our story: we hardly had to change a thing. Life and Shakespeare had done most of the work for us. All I had to do was learn it, of course!

And Anthony and I had to rehearse on Zoom. There were interesting moments rehearsing remotely: what happens when I kneel or lie down? The camera in the frame of the laptop can’t see me any more! We had the same problem when I turned to talk to someone ‘off camera’. Then there is the size of the role and the fact that I didn’t have any other actors to react to. Those reactions happen in my head – and hopefully in the heads of our audience!

But I hope that our take on this great story focuses attention on what is happening inside the head of this troubled old man in a unique way. And I have to say that we were so lucky that the Arts Council and indeed Crisis liked our idea and backed us. We are also grateful to our partner theatre company, Elysium, for giving us their support.

CM: Whereabouts were the pieces filmed? Is there a significance to the locations?
ED: We start at Denville Hall in North London. This is the care home for actors run by Equity and the ideal place for the actor’s story to start. We film outside The Globe and the National Theatre, which seemed appropriate as being places where the actor would really want to be ‘giving his Lear’ but from which he is excluded for the duration of our story.

We also shot on the beach of the Thames below the Southbank at low tide, which was a frankly magical experience! The last scene – no spoilers! – takes place beside Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. And most significant of all, the actor makes his way to the Crisis building in East London and it is there, in their Performing Arts Room, that he finally gets the chance to stand on an actual stage.

All these locations have resonances for different reasons and, as a Londoner, it has been an enormous privilege to film in these evocative locations.

CM: Releasing filmed instalments digitally has become a common manner of distribution during the lockdown period. From what you’ve said, the project was definitely developed with that in mind. Would this have been staged in a different way in a different time?
ED: Yes certainly. The planning for ‘Lear Alone’ took a while, but our producer had already repurposed a play for online viewing – Athena Stevens’ ‘Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels’, which was released as web series in February – so we had something of a blueprint.

And we were very aware that we had to plan something that could be made and shown in lockdown. When we started no one knew how long that would last – and we still can’t be totally sure. Digital media have been a saving grace for most of us; And Tomorrow is no exception!

By presenting the piece digitally, and for free, we hope to reach beyond a regular theatre-going audience, both geographically and demographically. The ultimate plan is for ‘Lear Alone’ to have a future life as a live one-man stage show. We have our hands full with the digital release for now, but watch this space!

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? Did you always want to be a performer? What led to your career in the arts?
ED: Yes, I have wanted to be an actor for almost as long as I can remember; when I was very small, I wanted to be a historian, probably because I was obsessed with history dates! But I left drama school 44 years ago and I have been working – or looking for work – ever since.

It wasn’t all plain sailing however; while I was at school, I was cast as the lead in the school play; after a month of rehearsals, the teachers who were directing it decided I wasn’t good enough and sacked me. And everyone in the school knew! I was sixteen at the time and I didn’t go to drama school until I was 24, mainly due to the lack of confidence this engendered.

But I now think that those teachers did me a favour: nothing since has ever been as bad as that. All those rejection letters were like water off a duck’s back by comparison.

CM: Can you tell us about the And Tomorrow Theatre Company – its ethos and aims?
ED: Anthony Shrubsall, Sarah Lawrie and I founded And Tomorrow Theatre Company in 2017 in response to Brexit. While we have no desire to open old wounds, I can say that our strong feeling was, and remains, that whatever may happen politically, art and theatre are international.

They belong to the whole world and acknowledge no boundaries. With this in mind, our first production, ‘Death Of A Hunter’, was an English translation of a play by a German – Rolf Hochhuth – about an American – Ernest Hemingway. And what’s more, its first performance was not in the UK but in Berlin, where the German author of the original lived.

This seemed, and still seems, very appropriate and we would welcome the chance to do something similar again if we found the right play. We aim to keep going and to get back into a real theatre as soon as we can!

CM: The industry has suffered, of course, because of the pandemic – how have things gone for you?
ED: I have been very lucky compared to many. I do voice over work and have the equipment for a home studio, so I continued to get work in lockdown.

I have also had other projects: I did many workshops, and one COVID Monologue, for Elysium Theatre Company – based in Durham. Thank heavens for digital!

And Anthony and I have also been working on an audio play about Joseph Grimaldi, based on his memoirs written by Charles Dickens, which is now available. In addition, in April I flew to Lithuania for two days on a feature film called ‘Vesper Seeds’.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
ED: What is the worst thing about an acting career? The uncertainty. And what is the best thing about an acting career? The uncertainty!

There are things being talked about: ‘Lear Alone’ on stage, voices for computer games, and a play in Durham perhaps?

But most likely it will be something that is a complete surprise and that will be lovely! I wouldn’t even object too much to a – albeit short – rest!

The first episode of ‘Lear Alone’ was released on 11 Jul and the subsequent four episodes will be released once a week on Sunday. All episodes will remain online and free to view until 31 Aug via And Tomorrow Theatre Company’s YouTube channel here.

LINKS: | | |