Shear Insanity: King Lear With Sheep at the Courtyard Theatre

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Alasdair Saksena in King Lear With Sheep at the Courtyard Theatre. Photo courtesy of Will Hazell.
Alasdair Saksena in King Lear With Sheep at the Courtyard Theatre. Photo courtesy of Will Hazell.

I was a King Lear With Sheep denier.

I asserted repeatedly, confidently, as friends posted link after link about it to my Facebook page, that it absolutely could not be real. It was, I insisted, like that Hamlet with pugs. It was a joke. It was not actually happening.

Eventually, I was forced to reconsider this stance. People saw it. Actual news outlets reviewed it. It appeared to be real.

It is real. There are nine sheep and one man performing a play at the Courtyard Theatre.

The plan at the start of the night seems to be exactly what is on the tin: King Lear will be performed by sheep. The director, Alasdair Saksena, enters first, and finds himself forced to riff anxiously while the cast fails to materialize. His pretentious showbiz platitudes about togetherness and the way the play plays are pitch-perfect. Then enter the sheep.

I realize this is a dramatic shift from my initial refusal to believe that the production even existed, but there were moments when I felt it really was capturing something essential about the spirit of King Lear— the king himself, if not the play as a whole. Saksena’s shock upon realizing that the sheep are not, in fact, going to prove capable of performing King Lear (even though, he assures us, they’ve done it hundreds of times before), and his immediate vitriol at the ewe playing Cordelia, who he identifies as the ringleader of the mutiny, are a strangely perfect version of the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s play. Saksena’s frantic self-centredness, his deeply-felt sense of betrayal in the face of what is, to the audience, an obvious outcome (they’re sheep) are apt echoes of Lear’s arrogance and delusion.

Midway through, I found myself thinking about Nahum Tate. Tate is the author of what might be the most infamous Restoration-era rewrite of Shakespeare. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, playwrights and actor-managers updated Shakespeare’s works to better suit contemporary expectations, the talents of famous actors, or their own taste; some of these adaptations, including Colley Cibber’s Richard III and John Dryden and William Davenant’s adaptation of The Tempest completely superseded the original texts into the 19th century; Tate’s The History of King Lear is believed to have experienced a similar success, with at least parts of his text enduring in productions until the 1830s. Despite this dominance, plenty of contemporary critics were irritated by Tate’s adaptation, which is most famous today for excising the Fool, and granting the main characters happy endings.

“They have converted the seraph-like Cordelia into a puling love heroine, and sent her off victorious at the end of the play—drums and colours flying—to be married to Edgar,” critic Anna Jameson wrote in Characteristics of Women in 1832. “Now anything more absurd, more discordant with all our previous impressions, and with the characters as unfolded to us, can hardly be imagined.” Other critics of Tate insisted that by the end of the play, Lear wants to die; it’s cruel to imagine any other ending for him.

Tate’s fans praised him for relieving the abject misery of Shakespeare’s ending, and someone— whether it was the will of managers, market forces, or actors— agreed. There is not much misery in Missouri Williams’ adaptation. Well, Saksena is fairly miserable, and when the ending veers into Shakespearean rather than Tateish territory, the multiple levels of meta-theatricality all collapse in on each other: is Saksena simply determined to stick the ending of the one-man Lear he has begun? Has he, like the titular King, slipped into delusion, and decided that his unruly sheep really are the characters they’re named for? Is this King Lear with (that is, performed by) sheep, or King Lear with (that is, surrounded by) sheep?

I assume the implications are a little different every night, depending on the whims of the cast. Because like Lear’s daughters, and also like actual farmyard animals in tiny paper crowns, the sheep are only ever going to do what they want to do. A couple of them wanted to chew on the bars of the paddock that encloses the stage, and others would sometimes lean their cheeks against these bars in a thoughtful-looking pose that was ridiculously endearing. Most at some point fancied taking a poo, and one wanted to eat Saksena’s hair. The night is punctuated with fits of giggles as different pockets of audience members notice the antics of different sheep. It makes for a unique feeling of individuality within the group experience.

That sense of personalized experience is something that I hear a lot when theatre artists discuss how to adapt the theatre to changing tastes and a digital world. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and its semi-secret, randomly selected one-on-ones are the gold standard example for those who insist that young theatregoers will respond to art that can offer at least the illusion of a personalized experience. I don’t think that is what won King Lear With Sheep a sell-out run.

There are subtle similarities between the arguments of both the pro- and anti-Nahum Tate camps. While they’re arguing for opposite things— the goodness or badness of Tate’s adaptation— their barometer for this quality is the same. Both sides used language that framed the ideal ending of the play as one in which its heavy sadness is alleviated, whether by applauding Tate for actively changing it, or by insisting that in fact it’s a kindness to Lear to finally die, or a triumph to Cordelia to escape the conventional feminine narrative of marriage. Seriously, both camps seem to insist, we promise it’s not as bleak as it seems.

Obviously the reason King Lear With Sheep keeps selling out is the sheep. They are there. There are actual live sheep wandering around the stage and sometimes they bleat and sometimes they poop. There is something almost shocking about the realness of their presence, their complete lack of training, their smell. It’s unquestionably real, and questionably live. And I think that is the reassurance we are after. Not the need for theatrical experiences to be personalized, with hidden levels like a video game, but the promise that by going to the theatre, we will find something different than what we could just go home and watch on TV. King Lear is more than four hundred years old. But seriously, Williams and Saksena promise, we can show you something alive.

King Lear With Sheep is at the Courtyard Theatre until October 4. Tickets are £12.50 (£10 concessions).

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