The exquisite torture of playing King Lear

Associated Press
In this photo provided by Lincoln Center, Greg Hicks performs in a scene from the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "King Lear," during a rehearsal at the Park Avenue Armory, Friday, July 15, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Lincoln Center, Stephanie Berger)
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NEW YORK (AP) — On a "King Lear" day, the torture starts early in the morning for Greg Hicks.

Even before the actor opens his eyes in his hotel room, the lines of Shakespeare's great play come coursing through his brain like some dastardly internal alarm clock, more fiendish than any real one. And the words don't let up, all day long. They tease him, hound him, make him wonder ceaselessly: "Am I doing it right?"

Anyone who thinks doing 85 performances of "Lear" over two years for one of the world's premier classical theater companies might make one cocky — or reasonably confident, or relaxed — should talk to Hicks, who's currently playing the role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's virtually sold-out engagement at the Park Avenue Armory.

"Eighty-five performances, and I'm still frightened of it," confesses Hicks, 58. "I still have to take a very deep breath."

And he needs all the breath he's got — in a rotation that sounds both physically and mentally draining, Hicks also plays two other big roles in the RSC's five-play, six-week run here (a partnership with the Armory, The Ohio State University and the Lincoln Center Festival): the tragically jealous Leontes in "The Winter's Tale," for which he's gotten his most glowing notices, and Julius Caesar.

But he's clearly the most obsessed with — and vexed by — Lear, that misguided ancient monarch who poses an Everest-like challenge to even the most accomplished actor. It's the Bermuda Triangle of Shakespearean roles, to hear Hicks tell it: Just when you think you're in, you're lost.

"The remarkable thing," the actor says, sitting in a darkened lounge at the Armory one recent afternoon, "is that the more you do it, the more elusive and unfathomable it becomes." He fears that might sound pretentious. "Honestly, I am not being all actory and wanky here," he insists.

Wanky isn't a word one would immediately think of to describe the slim, bearded Hicks, who speaks with all the intensity and clarity you'd expect from a Shakespearean actor (though the flip-flops he's wearing with his name emblazoned in magic marker DO seem a bit wanky.)

Ironically, Hicks' obvious physical fitness — he is a young 58 — has not played to his advantage during the current run of "Lear"; some critics have opined that he looks too young and spry to play the role. Hicks wonders why people assume Lear to be a doddering octogenarian.

"At the end of the play, Lear kills a man — how does he do that if he has no strength?" he asks, animatedly. "And he rides around the country on his horses! Paul Scofield was 48 when he played Lear. I'm 58 — I have grandchildren." And don't get him started on John Gielgud: "He was 24 when he first played it."

Just those two names show you what Hicks is up against — every great classical actor of a certain age has seemingly tackled Lear. Only this past spring, Derek Jacobi brought his version to New York.

"It's difficult because everyone has a particular take on it," Hicks says. "I chose to play a less sympathetic character." Indeed, his Lear declares himself as a manipulator from his first entrance, where he tricks everyone watching by entering from a side where no one expects him.

"That was my idea," Hicks says with a grin. "I said I wanted to begin the play by wrong-footing the audience."

The actor gets a laugh with the entrance, and here Hicks is using something he says he learned from the late Sir Ralph Richardson. "He told me to take the first opportunity to get a laugh, especially in these tragedies," Hicks says. "Because THEN, you can make them cry. Not the other way around."

Hicks, who supplements his stage work with TV work in Britain, played his first Shakespearean role at age 11, if you can imagine an 11-year-old Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." He played Malvolio ("Twelfth Night") at 15, the same age a teacher wrote on his report card: "This boy should become a professional actor."

He's worked for years with the RSC, which is based in Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, and where actors are hired for short-term contracts. "I like to think that they'll keep asking me back," he says.

He's already in a select group of prominent Shakespearean actors, but here's a much more exclusive group: prominent Shakespearean actors who almost became rabbis.

"A spiritual communicator and a theatrical communicator — there's a similarity, I suppose," Hicks muses. "I'm a naturally talkative, verbal person." Ultimately, he was persuaded by passionate teachers to go the theatrical route — although at acting school he also got a teaching degree, which made his father happy. (His 100-year old dad remains his biggest supporter and ally, Hicks says.)

The actor's interests also veer to capoeira — the Brazilian martial arts/dance form — which he uses to warm up before shows, along with yoga. He spends an hour and a half getting ready, physically and vocally, for each show.

His dressing room at the Armory is filled with protein bars, bananas and vitamin pills to help him get through the draining run. He also meditates, which surely serves him well when reading reviews — "a terrible addiction," he confesses. "I read all of them. My partner has banned me from doing it, but I don't listen."

And he takes what critics say to heart, sometimes even adjusting his performance, he says, but always paying attention. What some reviewers, including The Associated Press, suggested was a somewhat cerebral, less emotional quality to his Lear, Hicks, ever the artist, took as full-blown criticism.

He also didn't like being called "well-spoken" by some — "that's underhanded, isn't it?" he says — and has choice words for one reviewer who called him "wispy and wiry."

"'Lear' was hard," he says. "I arrived in New York, had one day off, and went straight to dress rehearsal in front of an audience. And then I was blown out of the water," he says, exaggerating just a little.

When his interviewer protests that one prominent review was hardly a pan, he agrees, but says: "It was more of a rejection than an affirmation." He does acknowledge that his Leontes in "Winter's Tale" received unqualified praise.

And the audience reaction in New York has been gratifying. "At the end of the day this has been a sellout," he says — even at prices up to $250 per premium seat. "I musn't obsess too much."

He adds: "You can feel the genuine relish here. The quality of listening is very sharp. You deliver a line, and you can hear the shimmer on it."

Al Pacino came one night. "Of course, I wanted him to offer me a role in his next movie," Hicks quips. He will soon appear in his first big movie, a small role in "Snow White and the Huntsman" with Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart. "Blink, and you'll miss me," he says.

True, his is not a household name in New York, but that doesn't mean he never gets recognized. Not long ago after "Winter's Tale," he was eating dinner in a restaurant and some theatergoers came over. "We loved your Leontes," they said. "Can we buy your supper?"

"That," he says, "was fabulous." For a Shakespearean actor in a town that loves Shakespeare, some days aren't quite as torturous as others.

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