The clear-cut pitfall in playing Regan and Goneril, the most vicious of vicious daughters in dramatic literature, is turning them into caricatures. And it wouldn't be difficult. So assert Lucy Peacock and Domini Blythe, who inhabit the two hateful ladies in the production of "King Lear" that bowed at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater on March 4. This "King Lear," starring Christopher Plummer in the title role, is an import from the Stratford Festival of Canada.
"Our job is to humanize the two women," notes Peacock (Regan). "They have to be seen as part of a whole world."
Explains Blythe (Goneril): "They are the children of their father, an outrageous man who has produced three daughters, all of whom have a streak of stubbornness and willfulness that mirror their father's. These are the daughters of this man."
The soft-spoken and affable Blythe and Peacock, who couldn't be more removed from their onstage alter egos, meet with me in their dressing room before a performance. A lighthearted camaraderie is evident between the two actresses, who have worked together at the Stratford Festival for years. Blythe has been a member of the company for 12 seasons over a 25-year period, Peacock for the last 17 years.
As they tell it, King Lear and his daughters have to be viewed as the classic dysfunctional family (some might say archetypal). Indeed, under the direction of Jonathan Miller, the actors have been encouraged to interpret Lear's family dynamics through a contemporary lens.
"Jonathan talked about the accumulation of moments in family life that create the layers," says Peacock. "So it's not a beat-by-beat performance. Instead, every moment [between the daughters and their father] reflects an accumulated response over a lifetime."
"When Lear asks us to tell him how much we love him, he's throwing us a curve ball," Blythe suggests. "But at the same time, we recognize it as one of his games that he has been playing with us forever. And we have to figure out what it is he's looking for and how we're going to play it. We're constantly second-guessing and manipulating each other."
Throughout the performance, there's a sense of gamesmanship, not simply between the women and their father, but also between the sisters. They are, however, united by their compulsive need for self-preservation. Still, there are qualities that distinguish them.
"I'm the fierce one," observes Blythe. "Goneril has got the makings of a leader. I can see her dressed up and leading a charge. She's a dominatrix."
Peacock agrees, remarking, "Regan is not as bright as Goneril. Her strong point, she believes, is her sexuality—and she uses it."
In this production, the two sisters are made up and costumed almost to evoke grotesques, sporting decidedly unflattering wigs and rigid costumes that render the women stiff and unnatural in their movements.
"I don't remember feeling this tired before," says Domini. "We're breathing against a corset and are terribly restrained by those giant collars. It's very hard to lean back. The costumes are beautiful, but exhausting."
Peacock adds, "Performing in the Vivian Beaumont also requires a vocal adjustment. It's not just the new space, although that's certainly part of the problem. But the Stratford seems to be more acoustically available."
Theatre in Their Blood
Peacock and Blythe are Shakespearean veterans. Peacock has spent her entire career with the Stratford Festival, playing such roles as Portia ("The Merchant of Venice"), Kate ("The Taming of the Shrew"), Desdemona ("Othello"), and Titania ("A Midsummer Night's Dream"), among many others. Blythe has performed the classics on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to her work with the Stratford Festival, she has appeared at the St. Lawrence Center in Canada and with Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, acting in such productions as "Richard II," "Richard III," and "The Maid's Tragedy." She also boasts film and television credits on her resume, including a two-year stint on the New York-based soap "Search for Tomorrow."
Both actresses are British born, although only Blythe speaks with a British accent. Peacock's family immigrated to Canada when she was a small child. Blythe and Peacock are both descended from theatre families. Blythe's parents were actors Richard Blythe and Maureen Murphy. Peacock is the great niece of Dame Sybil Thorndike and points out that she is a fourth-generation actor.
Their resumes and theatre lineages notwithstanding, Blythe and Peacock concede that the challenges in playing Goneril and Regan are unique on many fronts, not least the fact that these are truly despicable characters whose actions have to be justified by the actresses playing them. That doesn't mean they have to like them, but they do have to understand them. Equally important, the performers cannot tip their hand too early. Variety and, especially, momentum are the keynotes.
Says Blythe: "As the play continues, you see Goneril's increasing irritation turn to fury and finally sheer hatred towards her father, which is unleashed when he curses her. At that point—but it can't be before that—it's no holds barred. Jonathan [Miller] said there's a point at which the two women are tobogganing down the slippery slope of annihilation, embodying everything that is hateful."
Peacock remarks that the most difficult thing for her to put a handle on is "Regan's willingness to blind a man [Gloucester] and then be sexually aroused by it. I believe she is. But, however monstrous, the action is not outside the play's social-moral context. The man is a traitor and she feels no remorse."
Blythe adds with a chortle: "When we take our curtain calls, some audiences boo us."
So what about their attraction to the evil bastard Edmund? Are they truly turned on or simply competing with each other? Blythe and Peacock insist that they may be vying for the same man, and to that extent, it's another game to be won, but each is genuinely "in lust" with him. Neither loves him nor anyone else.
"Regan sees Edmund as fresh meat," says Peacock. "She wants him, she'll go for him, and then she'll move on."
Comments Blythe: "Goneril recognizes qualities in Edmund that she sees in herself. They are ambitious, ruthless, and power-hungry. And that's the turn-on."
Asked who these stunningly modern women would be if they were in fact modern women, Blythe and Peacock don't miss a beat.
"Regan would have done something dreadful and be heading for a maximum-security prison," says Peacock with a sneaky smile. "And once she's there, she'd take up hairdressing or dog grooming."
Blythe sees Goneril's contemporary incarnation in even slyer terms. "She'd be in jail for fraud and taking a course in investment management. She'd certainly be writing letters to the CEO at Enron."
For career guidance, one assumes.
"Regan is not as bright as Goneril. Her strong point, she believes, is her sexuality—and she uses it."—Lucy Peacock
"Goneril has got the makings of a leader. I can see her dressed up and leading a charge. She's a dominatrix."—Domini Blythe