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UK theatre troupe to present King Lear

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear. Photograph supplied

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” King Lear, arguably Shakespeare’s most tragic hero, is bringing his dark and stormy tale into town – together with dancers and a soundtrack.

This weekend, the TNT theatre group will perform their internationally acclaimed production of King Lear as part of an Asian tour. Their interpretation of the classic story of a king who descends into madness combines all the performing arts – theatre, dance and music – in a single performance. The Phnom Penh Post spoke to director Paul Stebbings, who trained under Polish experimentalist director Jerzy Grotowski, about what we can expect from his take on the classic.

Why did you choose not to alter the production from the version performed in England?

It’s the real thing – Shakespeare in Shakespeare. I dont think we should offer “theatre for foreigners” – we are a British theatre company with a style that is accessible to native speakers and non-native speakers – if I go and see Kathakali [traditional Indian dance-dramaa] or Kabuki  [classical Japanese dance-drama] I don’t want a watered-down version for tourists, so why should we offer that in Southeast Asia?

Why the focus on music?

We know Shakespeare had no elaborate sets, no lights, but he did always have live music – so we follow his lead and the musicality of the language is complemented and heightened by live music. We have a full musical score by Thomas Johnson – using cello, violin drums and four-part harmony singing – like a film score. The famous storm scene is created musically.

You take a symbolist approach?

Theatre must use the things that are truly theatrical and the strongest weapon is the imagination of the audience. The storm is the dramatic heart of the play – it represents all that can go wrong in human life – and the madness that is swirling inside Lear’s guilt ridden mind. Too often it is done realistically and falls flat (as it’s not  film). Our version uses masked  actors as dancers playing the winds and an “ocean” drum that is a drum filled with metal balls. On top of that the actors sing and play cello and violin. Our King Lear actor has to work hard to rise above this aural storm.

Lear is all about suffering. Samuel Johnson said he could hardly bear to follow it to its conclusion while the poet Keats wrote about “burning” through the play. Do you agree that watching it can be a battle?

I think it is a very emotional and moving play – maybe the most powerful piece of writing ever penned. Maybe not the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays as theatre but maybe his most profound. Personally, I find it is very exciting  too. It is deeply tragic but is it unendurable? The audience have to decide that.

For Cambodia, this kind of suffering and chaos is especially close – do you think it will resonate?

I do think that could be a resonance. But I am humble before such extremes. I would hope that Lear can express things that few other works of art achieve and that the real meaning of catharsis can apply to Cambodia in a special way. But again it is for the audience to decide.

King Lear, presented by TNT Music Theatre, will be performed at the Chenla Theatre on Sunday at 8pm. Tickets are $20 per person, $10 for students.

To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at



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