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King Lear With Sheep

King Lear with Sheep, performed for the first time on June 14th at the DIG warehouse in Lewisham, London, stars one man, who plays a director, and nine sheep. As the real-life directors, Believer deputy editor Lucie Elven and Heather Williams, look to take the play on the road, they make sense of the absurdity by creating a fictional director to whom King Lear with Sheep would have seemed perfectly logical.

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always wanted to play Hamlet. But, because I was a little girl and Hamlet is a boy, in those more gender-bound, antediluvian times I thought I would perhaps settle for someone in King Lear, one of the daughters. Due to the isolated circumstances of my birth (unfortunately in the remotest localities of Somerset, on a bed of oolites north of the Mendip hills) I rarely experienced the joy of companionship with those of my own age and species. The early years of my childhood were intensely lonely. My only friends were the animals I encountered on nearby farms in Chew Valley. Though taciturn, they were friendly and obliging, and we passed many rural hours in pleasant amity, without drama.

Yet the years herded my theatrical ambitions on and, on the cusp of womanhood, my mind once more turned to the glittering beacon of the stage. The intensity of my purpose swiftly overwhelmed me and, in the clutches of my zeal, I did my best to persuade my farmyard friends to oblige me, assuring them that they too were meant to walk the hallowed planks of the Globe. Always cordial to my suggestions and eager to make my dreams a reality, they responded positively: within no time at all we had formed a rudimentary troupe, our sights aimed at Shakespeare’s most difficult play, King Lear. My parents, Bemused and Resigned (for those are their names), lent me the family barn in which to conduct my weekly rehearsals. Our eight local villagers reluctantly attended the first night of our production, performed in Wookey Hole underground caves, perched on stalagmites and illuminating my Lear-sheep with maglite torches. A majestic Leicester Longwool, Lear-sheep wore a crown of glittering tin-foil, and in equal parts munificent and self-possessed, consented to read the glowing reviews that I myself had both authored and published. 

Though time inevitably distanced me from the exuberant ambitions of my childhood, it eventually struck me that those elementary farmyard escapades (when considered critically) held the germ of a true and sincere idea. I began to dream anew of successfully directing King Lear with the dedicated cast of my youth, to introduce my sheep to the sanctity of the traditional stage, and to seek a global audience beyond the eight illiterate farmers of my girlhood. I returned to Somerset to pitch the idea to my ungulate old friends. Imagine my surprise when I found them either dead or so ravaged by age that they were incapable of performing! The few surviving were deeply sympathetic and suggested that I seek out younger talent in an outlying farm. With their letters of recommendation, my plan was sure to succeed, and I immediately mounted my rusty old bike, donned my straw hat, and cycled over, thinking all the while of Beckett’s 1932 letter to George Ravey: “I’ll be here till I die, creeping along genteel roads on a stranger’s bike.”

I found myself before an audience of elders. They were keen to ascertain my personal merit before introducing me to their children and dependents. I intimated that sheep, though initially pushed into the theatre by mere necessity, contained the secrets of King Lear itself. That they were undeniably relevant, thematically, philosophically. Looking Great Great Great Great Grandmother Ewe in the eye with the respect such age commands, I gathered speed: “I will now discuss the importance of both the sheep and my own unique slant on King Lear, now known as King Lear with Sheep. Through the inclusion of sheep the play has transcended the bounds of the original material and is capable of making a deeply original comment on the existential situation of contemporary man. King Lear with Sheep follows a director’s pains to convince a troupe of sheep to perform King Lear. Contrary to his expectations, the sheep tacitly refuse. He (rightfully) construes their silent huddling as sedition and, certain he has been betrayed, starts to detest his cast and has a nervous breakdown. King Lear with Sheep echoes the themes of the original in an entirely new context. In King Lear, Cordelia refuses to tell Lear that she loves him, and in my play, this theme is drawn out into the implacable silence of the lambs and ewes. At the climax of my play, the director is unable to distinguish between his own identity and that of King Lear, and the final scene concludes with him cradling Cordelia-sheep, regretting his own cruel behavior as a director. Is that genius, or what?” Great Great Great Great Grandmother Ewe’s eyes may have twinkled, but I couldn’t be sure. 

“By genius I mean that it is essentially a comment on solipsism; on the crushing emptiness of modern existence; on silence and feminity; and of course, on the original meta-theatrical premises of King Lear itself. It’s witty. It’s post-post-Beckettian. King Lear with Sheep functions on two levels: it is on the one hand a simplistic comedy, relying on the shock-value and novelty of sheep in tiny costumes (novel and meme-worthy to the sophisticated city-urbanite), but, on the other hand, it is also a darkly incisive look into the nature of performance and its associated anxieties, a visceral challenge to man and his tools, revolving around the fundamental problems of language.” The force of my sincerity soon won Great Great Great Great Grandmother Ewe, she stamped her cracked and cloven hoof like a gavel, stirred her fleece with vigorous womanliness, shook a lambs tail twice and, before I could see conceive of the power with which she had turned a metaphorical expression into a literal act, I once more stood at the head of a fame-hungry flock, craving the limelight.

Our rehearsal process was fraught with difficulties: my new cast was composed of younger sheep, minds rotted by reality-television, with an unassailable sense of their own worth, they behaved as though the world owed them something, and could not easily equate success with hard-work. It took all my resources as a director to craft them into a loyal troupe. At times I faltered and thought wistfully of the bourgeois existence that I had assembled for myself back in the big city, the comparative ease of working with human actors, and the pleasures of a life devoid of ambition—and yet, as the rehearsal process moved inexorably onwards, and my sheep started to show some promise, the magnitude of my vision itself sustained me. I saw that what I was doing was not merely intellectually interesting but revolutionary, that I was beginning to represent a force capable of reforming the contemporary stage: myself as an antidote to, and my sheep as the logical conclusion of, an epoch of theatrical lethargy. In a moment of unwonted insight, understanding the autobiographical implications of my situation, I felt it necessary to introduce a single lonely human character into the conceptual menagerie; symbolizing yours truly.

Photography by Nick Morris.