May 28, 2007

theatreview exclusive: 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-reviewers-barred, full frontal Ian McKellen King Lear will not be the only production of the play in New Zealand this August. The week before the RSC production opens in Wellington (at the Westpac St James), The Bacchanals-Fortune Theatre co-production of King Lear will play five performances only Te Whaea theatre (see below for further details), with Edward Petherbridge in the title role.

It seems every time The Bacchanals plan a Shakespeare in Wellington, a larger mainstream company decides to put on the same play in the same year.  In 2004 The Bacchanals produced Romeo and Juliet ahead of a Downstage production; in 2005 their A Midsummer Night’s Dream was followed by a Circa production. This time only six days will separate the Bacchanals-Fortune and RSC productions of King Lear.

To add even greater interest, Messrs McKellen and Petherbridge are professional colleagues from way back, having managed two successful UK theatre companies together: the Actors’ Company in the 1970s and the McKellen-Petherbridge Company within the National Theatre in the 1980s. [See the King Lear forum]

This will be the first time Edward Petherbridge has performed in NZ in 50 years and on opening night he’ll celebrate his 71st birthday.  The production is a big step for both companies – it will be the first time The Bacchanals have taken their work to the South Island and the first time they have worked in collaboration with a recurrently-funded theatre.  "They might be at the bottom of the country, but amazing things are happening at the Fortune Theatre and we want to share them with the rest of the country!" declares Bacchanals and Lear director David Lawrence.  

Edward Petherbridge brings an inestimable wealth of experience, talent and wisdom to The Bacchanals-Fortune production of King Lear.  In addition to his partherships with Ian McKellen, he has worked for the National Theatre under both Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Peter Hall, played several seasons for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has worked with many leading directors including Trevor Nunn, Adrian Noble, David Mamet, Sean Mathias, Gillian Lynne, John Dexter, Alan Dosser, Philip Prowse, Ian Judge and John Caird.

While importing a foreign actor to play the title role may seem odd given the continual shortage of work for NZ actors, the cultural exchange benefits will be invaluable.  "It’s always great when international companies bring high calibre work to New Zealand, but there’s only ever so much we can learn from them as audience members," says David Lawrence.  "For us to be able to actually work with an actor whose last foray into the play was as The Fool to Olivier’s Lear will be fantastic.  As young practitioners we can learn so much from someone who’s spent their entire working life in the theatre, just as Edward will hopefully be invigorated by the energy and vibrancy of New Zealand theatre where you have to create everything out of nothing.

"Of course, we’re not fools, and I’m sure few of us have forgotten the unfortunate incident in 1849 when rival productions of Macbeth in New York led to rioting that resulted in the death of 34 playgoers and the injury of hundreds more," adds David, "so this King Lear will have a strictly-limited, five nights only season in Wellington before heading to Dunedin." 

In WELLINGTON King Lear plays at Te Whaea Theatre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown

Wednesday 1 August – Saturday 4 August at 7pm
Sunday 5 August at 4pm
Bookings phone 0800-EDMUND (0800-336863) or e-mail

In DUNEDIN King Lear plays at the Fortune Theatre
Friday 10 August – Saturday 1 September
Tuesdays at 6pm, Wednesday-Saturdays at 7pm, Sundays at 4pm
Bookings phone 03 477-8323 or visit  

[See the King Lear forum] 

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