Play about King Lear’s family addresses dementia issue

Lear/Cordelia at Derby Theatre Studio on November 18 and 19.
Lear/Cordelia at Derby Theatre Studio on November 18 and 19.
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A university project which solved the mystery of the illness behind the tragedy in Shakespeare’s King Lear has resulted in a literally dramatic new way of looking at dementia.

Derbyshire’s 1623 Theatre Company will bring the story of Lear into the 21st Century with a performance which uses the research to highlight issues facing people living with dementia and their families.

Derby University’s English department, medical professionals and 1623’s artistic director Ben Spiller studied four crucial passages from the play – which sees the ageing Lear compromise his family life with a rash plan to divide his kingdom between his daughters.

Postgraduate student Emma Fitzpatrick and her team demonstrated how the character’s sudden mood changes and anger, memory loss and brief moments of clarity, suggest that The Bard was writing about what we now call dementia.

They diagnosed four different kinds of the disease in Lear, who – as so often happens with the disease – sees the changes coming when Shakespeare has him say: “I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”

1623 based story-making workshops on Lear, using objects, songs and movement to stimulate activities in care homes in Chesterfield, Derby and Alfreton.

This generated more research which has now been collated and turned into a double-bill of theatre for the 21st Century called Lear/Cordelia. The first half is a radical reworking of Shakespeare’s play by Ben, while the second, Cordelia, explores how an estranged daughter tries to reconnect with her father who is living with dementia. It was written by Birmingham REP Foundry artist Farrah Chaudhry.

“People still talk about someone suffering with dementia, which is a huge assumption,” said Ben, who believes people can live with it successfully, just as now they live with cancers which once would have been terminal.

“Parts of the brain are dying, but at the same time there is still a human being there, so let’s try and work with what there is. Our research showed that the one thing we all have is an imagination. The arts unite us, whether or not we have dementia.”

Lear/Cordelia will be performed at Derby Theatre Studio on Friday, November 18, at 8pm and Saturday, November 19, at 2pm and 8pm. To find out more, go to www.1623theatre.co.uk/learcordelia