All Hail the Queen King: In Conversation with Jessica Powell

Jessica Powell

We still preform Shakespeare’s plays becasue they contiunue to offer incredibnly insight into human behavior. This has allowed artists and directors to adapt his plays to meet their historical needs. Indeed, since it was first written King Lear has undergone numerous adaptations each unique, special and impactful in their own ways while still retaining the heart of Shakespeare. And yet, rarely do these adaptations take the form of casting a woman in the titular role. This summer, SF Shakes is adressing our unique historical moment by casting Jessica Powell as King Lear—not Queen Lear. The question is how will a female Lear address the play’s concerns of age, power, and familial relationships from a female perspective? 

Interview by Arin Roberson, SF Shakes Literary Intern, 2020. Arin recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in English and a Minor in Celtic Studies. She loves nothing more than reading anything she can get her hands on, and playing outdoors with her Australian Shepherd, Tilly. 

SF Shakes: What made you feel ready to take on King Lear?

Jessica Powell: Nothing makes me feel ready to take on King Lear.  I don’t know if anybody ever feels ready to take on King Lear. It’s just a massive, gorgeous, role and the character changes so much over the course of the play. Part of me also says it is time. I don’t know how much more time I have on this earth or when the roles run out. So yes, there is this kind of surge of energy in saying yes, now. Do this now.

SF Shakes: What are the things you feel you bring to this role as a woman that a male Lear does not possess?

Jessica: Well the stakes are so much higher for both Lear as a woman and for Jessica. Everything is heightened—the emotion, the challenges, the expectations. I think having achieved power and keeping it are more challenging for a woman. Then there is the relationship with the daughters, who after all did come out of her body. Lear says “but yet thou art my flesh.” It’s a whole different thing for a man to say that versus a woman saying that. When she says, but you are my child, how…you are my own flesh, you came out of my own body, I carried you for nine months and I am cursing you, I hope you never have a child or if you do that you experience what I am experiencing from you right now it’s just so much stronger.

I was thinking also [laughs] about the whole interruption from Kent in the beginning. He tries to stop Lear from doing what she’s doing and how angrily she blows up at him. The phrase that came to me today was “Do not mansplain!” It’s bad enough this man calls me “thou,” which you know, to use that pronoun is disrespectful, but that he tried to do it to a woman is like that’s just…you don’t do that.

SF Shakes: Has your history as an actor prepared you for this role?

Jessica: No. [laughs] No, no. I played Goneril a long time ago. And that gave me quite a lot of insight into the whole Lear world, the whole Lear family. 

SF Shakes: Do you think having played Goneril adds some new illumination to Lear?

Jessica: Oh yes! Because fortunately in the production that I did, Goneril had good reason to be just totally fed up with Lear. The King and the soldiers were jerks. So, it was really pretty easy to say, “Not only sir, this your all-licensed fool, but other of your insolent retinue, Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth In rank and not-to-be-endured riots. Sir” [sighs heavily in frustration and then breaks character and laughs] It’s just this whole I can’t bear it. But then, of course, you have to deal with the moment where she says oh absolutely, take his eyes out. You go woah, woah, because she definitely gets far harder and more evil as the play goes on, and you have to deal with that. I remember standing next to my pastor at the time and saying, “What makes a person do that.” And we simultaneously said, “abuse.” So that was kind of an interesting insight. Now clearly that’s not going to be the case here, but there is emotional abuse; it doesn’t just have to be sexual abuse, it can be physical, it can be emotional and I do think that Lear does not know her daughters and has not been a good parent. You could look at the relationship with her daughters. She really has no concept of their character and experiences. And how could she? How could she have a concept of who they are and still be surprised when Cordelia says no, I can’t say what you expect me to say.

SF Shakes: You’ve touched I think upon this already, but what are some of the challenges of playing Lear?

Jessica: Well just physically. Physically, vocally, and mentally trying to memorize the lines. Sometimes it’s easy; it seems like when you have the extended speeches that sort of makes sense, but in the small parts where it’s like in the trial scene where just small exchanges, [laughs] You know it’s all these little kind of repetitive things that are hard. Emotionally of course it’s really challenging because on the one hand, you’ve got Lear saying [with authority] “Call my people together get the horses ready.” [whispered] “I’m going mad. I’m going mad” There’s that, well where does the madness start? How does it progress? You don’t want to peak too early. So that’s a challenge and yet you have this scene right in the beginning where she’s furious with Cordelia and then Kent. So, there is that in finding not just the emotional progression of the character, but what exactly is going on in her mind as she’s saying these different things. How much does she reveal and to whom? 

SF Shakes: Do you find Lear to be a character who redeems herself?

Jessica: There certainly is redemption at the end of Lear, where there is this forgiveness. Lear asks for forgiveness and Cordelia forgives Lear. There’s the acknowledgment of suffering and the apology. Some people think that in the last scene Lear is still very selfish when she goes off to prison with Cordelia and says oh now I’ve got you all to myself. I don’t know if that’s an interpretation that I want to play with. I do think there is definitely growth in the acknowledgment when she wakes up in Cordelia’s camp and she says “I am a very foolish, fond, old woman”; I don’t really know how I got here, I think I know you, I’m not sure. I am just really broken. Strangely enough, I do think this play ends on a hopeful note. Things have been resolved, the bad guys are gone, and a lot of people are dead, but most of them are the bad people. And Lear, depending on the interpretation you want to give, Lear dies in hope that Cordelia actually is still alive, and I love that line where she says, thinking that she sees a breath, “if it’s true it makes every fault, every sin, every bad thing in my life, it redeems it.” It’s like the end of Pericles. At the end, Pericles is a broken man in rags, won’t cut his hair, won’t speak, won’t eat, thinks that not only his wife but his daughter are dead. And then it turns out that his daughter is actually there on the ship and she’s speaking with him. And little by little he gets to understand who she is and he keeps saying tell me more, stop, stop, tell me more, stop, stop because the joy is so overwhelming that it is unbearable. And maybe something like that happens to Lear at the end “Oh look, look.” And then she dies. Not everybody interprets it that way, but I think she dies in hope.

SF Shakes: Do you have any personal thoughts on how you interpret Lear’s character?

Jessica: I have been thinking about the concept of nature and natural. Those words are used so much. And I think the very concept of it is challenged and then changes so that Lear has a changing definition of what is natural. I mean at the beginning I think Lear thinks well, it’s natural that I am king and therefore can command and you should all obey me and I get to have a hundred people following me around and then she starts to see different things. She sees Tom and thinks, no this is actually the natural person and I’ve got too much on. She wonders what makes her daughters so evil. About Regan, she says, “Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?”  I think Lear has a different idea from the beginning to the end of what is natural. 

SF Shakes: Are there any particular actors or interpretations of Lear that you find inspiring?

Jessica: I saw just a little snippet of a Lear from the Stratford Festival. I don’t think the entire thing is available, but it looked really enticing. I think what struck me in just the little bit that I saw was how far you can go, how invested you can be in each phrase. The wonderful Patsy Rodenburg, in Speaking Shakespeare, says, “Shakespeare characters speak to survive.” So there’s nothing wasted– everything you say, you’ve got to find what’s behind it.  And I was really moved by Harriet Walter as Prospero in an all-women Tempest that takes place in a prison. The investment that she put into that character is really inspiring.

SF Shakes: Do you have a favorite line and why?

Jessica: [laughs] Oh there’s so many, so many. These days I love “Get thee glass eyes and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” Or I love the line “O, I have ta’en too little care of this” and especially this past week which has just been so bruising. You know I think for any white person the responsibility, the privilege that we did not earn, that has to weigh on us. And so there’s all that. Those really are two of my favorite lines, that and “A dog’s obeyed in office,” because it’s just so [laughs] correct right now.

Jessica Powell is a Bay Area actor, most recently seen as Momo in The Humans for The Stage (San Jose). She played Helicanus, The Bawd, et al. in SF Shakes’ Pericles (2008). Other roles include Volumnia (Coriolanus), Georgia O’Keeffe (A Conversation with Georgia O’Keeffe); Sister Aloysius (Doubt), and Elizabeth I (Mary Stuart), all for Pacific Rep.; Claire (Uncanny Valley), Polly (Other Desert Cities), Hannah, et al. (Angels in America), Aunt Eller(Oklahoma!), Mrs. Roswell (Ice Glen), Kate (All My Sons), Countess of Roussillon (All’s Well That End’s Well), Aemilia (A Comedy of Errors), Mame (Mame), Lee Green (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz – twice!), Mrs. Higgins (My Fair Lady), Joanne (Company) Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Margrethe (Copenhagen), and Ethel Thayer (On Golden Pond). Jessica co-founded Symmetry Theatre Company and has been an Actors’ Equity member since 1989.

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