Actress Lisa Harrow is only a short way into outlining her conception of King Lear, the play she is directing to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of Auckland’s Summer Shakespeare, and it’s clear this is a staging very much in tune with the environmental concerns with which she has been identified through her A-Z guide book and website What Can I Do? and live show SeaChange: Reversing the Tide.
“Well, there is that, yes,” says Harrow, laughing. “I just kept looking at if you could extrapolate one man’s mindless hubris, which is Lear and then Gloucester to some extent, out to our present state of the species on this planet on which we live – how grasping and mindless and idiotic [it is that] we’re taking the last vestiges of it for our own use because we’re afraid to engage in a new and different way of living.”
And so her production “fundamentally boils down to you can live two ways” – one way based on “consumption, greed, avarice, violence, ego”; the other on “love, compassion, gentleness, grace and forgiveness”.
In the play, she says, “the first choice blasts through the entire population and about three people are left standing at the end, one of whom, Edgar, has gone through fire and the most extraordinary transformation to understand that sense of humanity, and I have a feeling Shakespeare’s giving the ball to that person who may be capable of bringing in a new order.”
Harrow is married to eminent whale biologist Roger Payne and divides her year between the US and New Zealand, mostly at their home in rural Vermont or their farmhouse on Banks Peninsula.
But since before Christmas she has been “living like a monk” in Old Government House at the University of Auckland while immersing herself in the theatrical deep end, “totally consumed by learning the craft of being a director”.
This is her “first foray into such an adventure, and like all idiocies, it’s ridiculous I should be doing King Lear, but I am”.
Harrow was invited to do so by Michael Neill, the university’s emeritus professor of English and an old friend dating back to when she was with former partner Sam Neill, his younger brother.
Michael Neill wanted to pull out all the stops to mark the 50th anniversary and has certainly done that, with not only Harrow involved but also Michael Hurst as artistic consultant and her Fool (or rather, lest that be misconstrued, the play’s Fool), composer Gareth Farr in charge of music and Sam Neill as executive producer. Jessika Verryt, daughter of John, is doing the set, and at one point (although no longer, because of other commitments) sculptor Michael Parekowhai and in-demand film costume designer Ngila Dickson were down to be on board, too.
Students do get a look-in (both backstage and comprising half the cast, alongside alumni and professionals), but this is a step up from most years’ Summer Shakespeare. And an adjustment, too, for Harrow – whose career has encompassed theatre, TV and film roles in the UK and US, including for the Royal Shakespeare Company when she was straight out of drama school.
“I haven’t worked at this level with amateurs since I left New Zealand in 1966, so coming back and encountering that people have got jobs so they can’t come to rehearsal, or ‘Oh, you can’t have that because there’s no money for it in the budget’, or ‘You can’t do that because we don’t have that’ – it’s been tough. But that’s where Michael Hurst is so wonderful because he’s worked like that and he keeps saying to me, ‘If you meet a rock, be a river and swirl around it and go on.’”
Harrow sounds like she’s having a real luvvie-in with Hurst, about whom she can’t speak highly enough. She’d like to do James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter with him in New Zealand (she has already played Eleanor of Aquitaine in it in the US). “I think we could knock people’s socks off with that,” she says.
As for those amateur actors, they may have day jobs to juggle, but otherwise: “Well, you know, actors are actors.”
Harrow was in the first Summer Shakespeare in 1963 – as the Player Queen in Hamlet – when she was a student at the university.
“I remember Mus – Professor Sydney Musgrove – being phenomenal. His passion for the language. His desire to establish somewhere for people to come and see a Shakespeare play live, because that wasn’t happening much in Auckland at the time. And I remember his cast was the cream of the Auckland acting groups, because it was all amateur theatre in those days, and there were very few students. It was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever done that was outside school and I just thought it was fabulous.”
At 16, in her all-girl school, Harrow had actually been in King Lear – as Lear. She remembers sitting “on the back steps combing out the white shoe polish I put on my head to turn it grey – a whole bottle of it – pondering the dark elements of the play.”
The Lear in her new production is Michael Neill, a veteran of previous Summer Shakespeares and in no need of white shoe polish.
“It’s a very brave thing to do, but he’s determined to do it and, my God, he’s stepping up. Last night in rehearsal it was thrilling to watch.”
Neill, with his extensive knowledge of all things Shakespearean, has also been able to confirm Harrow in her conception of the play.
“The wonderful thing with doing a play with someone like Michael is he sits and watches and listens, and when we stop and talk about something, he pipes up and gives this phenomenal lesson on the background historically and socially and literarily of that particular moment in the play.
“One of the things I learnt is the play was written at the beginning of the rise of capitalism, the middle class and the cult of the individual. And you look at that and you look at our world now and I think how strange that I had this impression when I read the play and first said I’d do it that it was about the destructive force of capitalism. I had no idea Shakespeare had written it at that time in history. But there it was – it’s very clear if you see it through that lens.”
KING LEAR, Summer Shakespeare, Old Arts Plaza, University of Auckland, March 1-30.