King Lear is a family affair for actor Benedict Campbell, a 12-year veteran of Ontario's Shaw Festival. His father, Douglas Campbell, played Lear at the Stratford Festival in 1985. His grandfather, Lewis Casson (husband of Dame Sybil Thorndike), directed John Gielgud in the role at the Old Vic in London in 1940.
Now, in 2015, Campbell is stepping into the role himself – spending a season in Western Canada playing the aging, raging tyrant. Director Dennis Garnhum's production of King Lear opened at Theatre Calgary this week, and moves to Vancouver's Bard on the Beach in June for the summer. Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck spoke to its 59-year-old star over the phone.
When was the last time you worked out west? Was it in 1993 in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa?
I think it was. At this very place, Theatre Calgary. It was publicized as "Dancing! Dancing! Dancing! At Lughnasa!" A little alarming for that play. People were coming to see frolicking French dancing girls or something like that.
What made you want to take a break from Shaw and go back west now?
If somebody's going to offer you to play King Lear …
Yes, I suppose that's a dumb question.
It's probably a little premature in my life, but they wanted to do it now. I had worries about my age, but it can be a worry the other way as well – you get too old and the physical demands of it are too much. My father, the first time he did it, he was younger than me. When he did it at Stratford, he was 63. So I'm closing in on that.
I spoke to Colm Feore before he played King Lear at Stratford last summer, and he talked about having to get your father's voice out of his head. Is it in yours too?
As I started working on this, I did realize I was falling into the vocal patterns of my father, but, well, I think I have many vocal patterns that are my father's. As you probably have vocal patterns that are your father's. We all inherit things. Worse things could happen. I could sound like Rock Hudson.
You played Edmund to your father's Lear, and you were Kent to Christopher Plummer's, at Stratford [in 2002] and then in New York [in 2004]. Anything about their performances that you're looking back on and finding useful?
I think I may have learned a great deal from both of them through osmosis. But I don't actually consciously think, 'Oh, they did this; I should try that.' The embarrassing arrogance of actors is that you suddenly think, 'Why did they do it like that? This is the way to do it.'
Okay, well, to flip that last question around then, what is it that Plummer did wrong as Lear that you don't want to repeat?
As long as you can promise Christopher Plummer will never get a hold of a copy of this interview! There are very different outlooks on this part. What Chris did, I'm incapable of doing. If I were to compare us, I would say that I am a more aggressive actor – and I would be doing a more aggressive performance of King Lear. I think Chris thought, along with [director] Jonathan Miller, that Lear was beginning to show the first signs of Alzheimer's, which I don't feel.
That's how a lot of directors frame productions of Lear these days – reflecting our fears about Alzheimer's and dementia in general with an aging population.
I don't think it gives you a hell of a lot of places to maneuver. If anything, I think Lear – in his apparent madness – is probably in one the sanest places in his entire life. He finally recognizes the injustice of power versus weakness. I think he actually becomes a more full and capable human being, experiences what life really is. I think the play is a road of self-discovery.
Lear stretches farther back in your history than your father. Lewis Casson, your grandfather, directed John Gielgud in the role.
That's actually news to me. To tell you the truth, I didn't know that.
Oh, yeah. And didn't he act in a production where Donald Wolfit played Lear, too?
My mother [Ann Casson] did. The woman who was playing Cordelia got sick, so she stepped into the production. She had the typical Wolfit experience. Opening scene was Lear and a throne dead centre upstage, and everyone else was looking up at him. On the first day of rehearsal, my mother tried to turn one of her lines out front, and he said, 'Oh no, no! To me, to me; it's all to me.'
Wait, if your mom played Cordelia to Wolfit … You know his famous advice to another actor who asked about playing Lear: 'Get yourself a light Cordelia.'
I don't think she was the Cordelia he was referring to – or maybe she was. I got lucky and my Cordelia is light. Man, you have to carry her a long way and hold her for a long time. I could have done it easily a few years ago.
You're working with director Dennis Garnhum on this Lear. Is there a lot of collaboration? How does that relationship work?
It's definitely a collaboration, but we don't have personal meetings. Not to sound too goody-two-shoes about it, but nothing, in my mind, including Hamlet, is an individual journey. We're all in it together. I love talking to [the other actors] about what they're getting from me. It's easier when you're a lead character to forget that other people in the show have needs.
Did Plummer do that with you? Did he say, 'What do you need in this scene, Benedict?'
Oh god no. Chris is a very generous and open-hearted guy, a lot of fun to be around, but you're in a Christopher Plummer show, that's for sure. I think he respected me a lot and I certainly respect him tremendously. I understudied him, and that was great fun, knowing I would never have to go on. Imagine turning up at the Stratford Festival to see Christopher Plummer play Lear and you got me, a 45-year-old guy hacking away.
So, you've spent 10 seasons at Stratford, and another 12 seasons at Shaw – you originally went there when Jackie Maxwell took over as artistic director, right?
Well, Jackie and I were married. We're not officially divorced; we're just separated.
You're the best couple I've ever known that separated, working together.
We get on like a house on fire, Jackie and I…
So, now that she is leaving the festival in a year's time, what are your plans for the future.
Basically, it's where I can get the work, if anyone will hire me. I would like to have another go at playing at Stratford, that's for sure. But I don't want to go to Stratford and play middle-of-the-road parts either. Doing Shakespeare's a wonderful thing if you're playing a wonderful part, otherwise it's just a pain in the ass. We'll see who comes in and takes over at Shaw – maybe they'll have plans for me there, maybe not. It's a little worrying to tell you the truth. Suddenly, it's going to be like starting all over again.
King Lear is on at Theatre Calgary until April 12, and at Bard on the Beach from June 18 to Sept. 20.