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Broadway Q&A: Tony Nominee Ruth Wilson of ‘King Lear’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Ruth Wilson shares what she learned playing opposite Glenda Jackson

Ruth Wilson recently played two roles in King Lear, Cordelia, Lear’s exiled daughter and The Fool. Directed by Sam Gold, Glenda Jackson received raves in the title role of King Lear. Also in the cast cast is Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling O’Sullivan, Pedro Pascal and John Douglas Thompson. Wilson was nominated for aTony Award for her performance. She also has a Golden Globe and two Olivier awards. Known to many as Alison Lockhart in the TV drama, The Affair, her credits also include Jane Eyre, Mrs. Wilson (a film about Wilson’s actual family), The Little Stranger, Luther and His Dark Materials. Wilson last appeared on Broadway opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Constellations. She was also nominated for a Tony Award for that role, too.  

Tony nominee Ruth Wilson as Cordelia in ‘King Lear’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Tony nominee Ruth Wilson as Cordelia in ‘King Lear’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

What has it been like to be in this production of King Lear?
Ruth Wilson: I should have done Shakespeare by now. But I was avoiding it because it's intimidating. Taking on these two roles has been fantastic. It's a real challenge. It's like a foreign language, because we don't speak like that anymore. And The Fool speaks in riddles, so that makes it even worse. I had to interpret and then get that across to the audience. But it has been amazing working with this cast of talented people. I've learned so much from all of them. And they have done loads of Shakespeare. So I was feeding and absorbing off them. And it’s been brilliant to play the yin and yang of similar characters. One is a boy. One is a girl. They are both truth speakers. But they do it in very different ways. One through comedy, and the other one through earnestness. It's been a real challenge, but very exciting.

Do you remember one of your earliest memories performing?
RW: There was a family around the corner from where I lived. Their loft was converted into a little theater space. It was tiny with a curtain. And when I was about eight, we would create plays there, which was quite fun. We would make up these really boring, long plays that we made our parents sit and watch. And I was always bossing people around, being very central to the process. I remember doing a Christmas show involving Santa Claus. I remember it being about four hours too long. Maybe it wasn’t that long. It was probably about 45 minutes too long. It was just awful. But we had a great time.

In this King Lear, many of the women play men. What has that been like?
RW: We haven't really discussed gender, strangely. It has not been an issue. And as soon as you see Glenda play King Lear, within three minutes, you don't care whether it’s a male or female. What has been interesting and great is that we got to play parts that traditionally men played. They have great lines and they speak the same truth, whether you are a man or woman. It has been really fun to explore that. As The Fool, I have certainly gone down the route of manifesting a sort of boy. We are all encouraged not to play as women, but to play as men, or kind of genderless. That has been really exciting.

King Lear is a timeless play. Why is is relevant to do it now?
RW: We are in a bit of a political kettle. Things are politically chaotic, certainly in the capitalist world. There are universal themes that continue to be relevant. That is what we are trying to get across in this production. There is something strong about the relevance of the play – the idea of power, greed, losing power and usurping people from power. And there is also the expense of relationships, family and friendships. In the end, nature is in control. There is always that tussle in Shakespeare between humans and the earth. And that is still the case. Environmental change is more powerful than any of us.

What did you learn from watching Glenda Jackson?
RW: She has an incredible work ethic. Her energy and stamina is insane. She has incredibly precise wit, language and how she manipulates and uses words. They naturally flow out of her. It’s fascinating to watch. And it is always different every night. She is not stuck in a way of doing it. It changes. And I have the deep privilege of working alongside her. Every scene I do, except one, is with her. Whether it’s Cordelia or The Fool. Once she banishes me, I get her back as The Fool, and provoke her. It has been really joyful to work with her.

What qualities do the fool and Cordelia have that you adore?
RW: The Fool is endlessly fascinating, because he steps outside the play. I don't have to exist within the constraints of that play. It’s Brechtian. I can be improvisational with it. I can observe what is going on the stage. So I have a lot of freedom. It was also hard, because I had to create this from scratch. You can do whatever you want with the Fool. It felt like I had real license to create, but that was also daunting. And Cordelia is beautiful because she’s is the truth speaker, in contrast to everyone else. And in this day and age, we need people like her who stand up and speak the truth to power. Even with the consequences.


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