Brenan on playing Regan, the Heroine

Since I was little, I’ve always been interested in playing the villain. Maybe it was because I’ve usually played the opposite in my real life. I was a good little girl eager to please my parents and not step out of line, and I strive to be a good woman and to do right by others. But appearances are not everything. I’m a volcano inside. I feel anger, and disappointment, and violent impulses. Luckily for the people around me, I overwhelmingly suppress these feelings (sorry if you’re one of the few who have received one of my infamous whiskey slaps… you are the exception). So how excited was I to be cast as Regan in our upcoming production of King Lear? And how disappointed was I to realize, upon a close reading of the script, that I don’t think Regan’s a villain at all?

Of course, that realization is actually a good thing, because an actor playing is villain is sure to deliver a pretty boring performance. An actor playing a person with a goal – a goal that she is desperate to achieve because failure is not an option – that’s an interesting performance.

But Regan is fiery. She vies for attention, competes for power, and of course, revenges any hint of disloyalty. So my delightful challenge is to find out how to play Regan as a violent, volcanic, sloppy, absolutely justified heroine.

My main resources for this are clear: Shakespeare’s text, my own experiences, my fellow actors and the direction I receive from JoAnn. I’ve also just finished reading a wonderful book called A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a retelling of the Lear story on a Midwestern farm from the point of view of Goneril (called Ginny). So far these resources have served me well.

Shakespeare lays out plenty of reasons for Goneril and Regan to be angry, indignant and fed up by the end of Act 2 (when he goes out into the storm). In the very first scene, the king acts aggressively, spontaneously and unwisely, while everyone at the court repeatedly refers to Cordelia as the prettiest and most favored, while the two older sisters as “unkind” and scheming, although they have done nothing wrong. At all! The editor for the Arden edition of Lear suggests that by Elizabethan standards, these actions would have already characterized Lear as unstable, if not crazy.

Then, the old man gets really unreasonable. He acts ungenerously and irately towards Goneril while a guest in her house. He curses her and insults her vigorously, both to her face and to Regan’s, all the while demanding that the two daughters accept his extravagant lifestyle, and riotous and disorderly train of 100 men. And let’s not forget, Lear chooses to go out into the storm. Regan says “for his particular/I’ll receive him gladly.” And Lear says “No, you unnatural hags,/I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall–I will do such things–/What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth!” Nice, Daddy. That’s really nice.

Just imagine if this was your father. Of course you’d get mad at him! He’s a total jerk!

Now, I’m not saying that things don’t get out of hand. The reality is that Regan does have a goal that she’s desperate to achieve by any means. I believe her goal is attention, achieved through power, wealth, titles, men, and dominance. But as the middle child, ever passed over for her more beautiful, more articulate, more appreciated sisters and her overbearing father, Regan wants desperately the only thing she has never had: attention focused solely on her. Her failures, her unfiltered anger, her clumsy attempts to lead in a world where women are not taught how to lead, cause her to do terrible things (most notably Gloucestor’s blinding, although he is actually, by definition, a traitor…)

The point for me, is not just to justify, but to endorse and understand her actions. I have a lot of questions remaining about how this performance will take shape, but I feel pretty confident that I can get behind Regan, the heroine.

I’ll leave you with this passage from A Thousand Acres (there are a couple strong words and adult concepts in this, so please be forewarned). In this version of the story, Lear is a downright creep who slept with the older sisters after the death of their mother throughout their teenage years. And the breast she refers to is a mastectomy she had due to cancer. Details of the reimagining aside, the strength of this sentiment of a desperate need for self-actualization is the same.

“I want what was Daddy’s. I want it. I feel like I’ve paid for it, don’t you? You think a breast weighs a pound? That’s my pound of flesh. You think a teenaged hooker costs fifty bucks a night? There’s ten thousand bucks. I wanted him to feel remorse and know what he did and what he is, but when you see him around town and they talk about him, he’s just senile. He’s safe from ever knowing. People pat him on the head and sympathize with him and say what bitches we are, and he believes them and that’s that, the end of history. I can’t stand that.”

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