Talawa Theatre on King Lear & Shakespeare at 400

As his company prepares to stage a new production of King Lear, Talawa Theatre's artistic director Michael Buffong discusses the relevance of Shakespeare to a time of division and turmoil

Feature by Jennifer Chamberlain | 30 Mar 2016

For most people, the arrival of April signifies sudden showers, pretty tulips and lighter evenings. But, for all you theatre lovers out there, this month is a little different. This April marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, who died on 23 April 1616 (and is thought to have been born on the same date in April 1564). 

In a double whammy of events, Talawa Theatre company is marking this anniversary with a special celebration of its own. The Birmingham-based company is bringing King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most epic tragedies, to Manchester’s Royal Exchange in celebration of 30 years as the UK’s leading black-led theatre company.

But special anniversary or not, why Shakespeare? With so much new work emerging, why do companies insist on reproducing plays written four centuries ago? What is it about his plays that is so timeless that, even for the umpteenth time, audiences come back for more?

“It’s the ability to access the human experience,” says Michael Buffong, artistic director of Talawa Theatre and the man at the helm of this anniversary production. “I think it comes down to the fact that he was acutely aware of the human condition and an amazing storyteller.”

Storyteller he certainly was. With almost 40 plays to his name, Shakespeare knew how to tell a tale. One of his most famous tragedies, King Lear is a popular choice when it comes to staging the Bard’s plays but, as Buffong is quick to point out, it’s not without its challenges.

“It’s a daunting prospect, there’s no way you can avoid it. On one hand it’s exhilarating, but on the other hand I wonder if I can pull off this beast of a play. Some days I think I’ve got it and other days I worry it’s slipping away.”

The challenge of Lear

It took the director several years to decide whether to take on King Lear, and to weigh up how to go about successfully communicating the play’s sheer enormity, an idea he discussed with lead actor Don Warrington.

So what came first, the actor or the play? From the way Buffong talks about Warrington, it seems that the principal role for this production was always going to belong to him.

“Don has got amazing gravitas. He has stature and an amazing voice that makes you believe without reservation that he is a king,” says the director. But it’s not just aesthetics that make Warrington the man for the job; it’s his ability to successfully navigate the rocky road an actor must take in portraying a character of this kind.

“It’s a particular challenge for an actor to bring this iconic character to the stage,” Buffong says. “Lear goes from a man with absolute power to a man who’s lost all his sensibilities. That’s an amazing journey for an actor to make and it’s incredible to watch Don on that journey.”

A modern interpretation

King Lear depicts a world in chaos, a tumultuous place where order has been completely turned on its head. While Lear has been historically represented as a madman, Buffong has a modern view of the title character’s mental demise.

“The main theme of King Lear is of a man who is in the throes of what we would now call dementia. How do you deal with that? How do the people around you deal with that? It’s actually quite topical, there are a lot of people having to deal with that.”

And just like that, he hits the nail on the head. Shakespeare is still relevant because his stories are still relevant; we continue to see ourselves in the characters and the plots of his plays.

“That’s what King Lear does brilliantly,” Buffong says. “Here we have a whole social strata: a king to servants and madmen, then paupers on the street. Shakespeare has the ability to encompass all those people, to give them all a voice and put across their point of view and their problems.”

One thing’s for sure, it’s not often you discuss Brexit and the Bard within the same sentence, but Buffong is able to draw parallels between life within the pages of Shakespeare’s plays and society today.

On a more basic level, it’s the humanist element that we can most understand. King Lear tells the story of a father and his three daughters, one of whom goes against his wishes. It’s the story of a family in turmoil, but this family just so happens to be royalty, and what transpires in the domestic situation has huge implications nationwide.

“The idea, in the first instance, of splitting the country into three causes huge problems because nobody knows who is in charge. That then causes unease and an unsettled feeling in the country and there’s rumour and counter-rumour,” Buffong explains. “We absolutely still understand those feelings today, and we worry about it. Are we in or out of the EU?  Who’s in charge and who will come next? What will that mean for us all? There’s a paranoia, perhaps, that seeps through the population as we’re unsure as to what exactly is happening. King Lear touches on that and his ability to feel current is one of the amazing things about Shakespeare.”

Historical roots

So with modern parallels running throughout, we could assume that the director is going for a modern take on the classic play. But this, he insists, couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I’ve gone for a classic retelling. The play is set in Pagan Britain, so that’s what I’ve recreated. I like the idea of an ancient time where there isn’t religion as a controlling factor to keep everyone together. There’s just this idea of loyalty to the throne and to the father.”

But it’s the links to Talawa Theatre that make the director’s creative decisions particularly interesting. “The idea of having a black king also hints at the idea of a black presence in England, hundreds and hundreds of years ago,” Buffong says. “Everyone believes that this started in the 50s, with the Windrush generation, whereas now bits of history are coming to light to suggest there has been a black presence in Britain for possibly thousands of years.”

Indeed, challenging convention is at the heart of what Talawa Theatre sets out to do. Over the past 30 years, the company has built an incredible legacy in improving representation of, and providing opportunities for, black, Asian and ethnic minorities across the British theatrical landscape – a world saturated with the white middle-class.

With recent talk of diversity, or lack thereof, on stage and screen, Michael Buffong admits there’s still a lot of work to do.“This conversation has been happening for a long time, but it needs to happen much quicker,” he says. “It’s taking far too long to improve representation. Do we ringfence money? Should we have quotas? Do we need more diversity in terms of people in positions of power who are making these decisions? I say yes to all of the above, all of it.”

In all its success of the past and all its ambition for the future, Talawa Theatre, led by its visionary artistic director, definitely has a part to play: “Hopefully we are a beacon of not only fantastic theatre but also, for BAME artists, a light to lead them in being part of the theatre ecology of this country.”

Shakespeare? Really? Forbidden Planet, The Lion King and the films you might not know are based on the Bard

King Lear is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1 April-7 May and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 19-28 May http://talawa.com