London Stage Star Kirsty Bushell on Playing the Fierce and Feral Regan Opposite Ian McKellen in King Lear

London Stage Star Kirsty Bushell on Playing the Fierce and Feral Regan Opposite Ian McKellen in King Lear
Danny Webb & Kirsty Bushell in "King Lear"
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Kirsty Bushell has played Shakespeare’s Juliet as well as Olivia in Twelfth Night and has been earning praise, and eliciting gasps, for her no-holds-barred portrayal of the venomous Regan in the current Ian McKellen-led King Lear. The Chichester Festival Theatre production at the Duke of York’s will be broadcast to cinemas via National Theatre Live on September 27, allowing audiences the world over to see what may well be McKellen’s Shakespearean swan song—which seemed as good a place as any to begin an engaging chat with a thoroughly engaged actress.

How special does it feel to be part of a hit that also may represent the last Shakespeare performance of Ian McKellen’s storied career, at least according to him?
It does feel special, and I think we’re all aware of how lucky we are to be doing this with Ian at this stage and also because he’s so delighted that his passion is infectious: his work ethic and his drive and his compassion for the work have absolutely spread to the company. Obviously, we’re all filled with deep respect and admiration and sort of love him, really.

Do you actually believe that he will bid farewell to Shakespeare?
I suppose that’s what he has said, but I get a sense that he is going to keep on working because of how much he loves his job. He doesn’t talk about it to us a lot but he’s so alive and robust that you don’t think of him as stopping.

How did you come to be in a production that surely people were clamoring to be part of?
I’d worked with Jonathan [Munby, the director] a few times and was doing Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe when he gave me a call and said, “Do you want to play Regan?” I asked him where, and he told me Chichester [south of London, where the production ran before transferring to the West End] and then he said, “with Ian McKellen as Lear,” and I actually cried. I said to Jonathan that I’ve got tears in my eyes.

Did it feel like a quantum leap going from the child-woman that is Juliet to the fierce and feral Regan?
I was just remembering what one London critic said about my Juliet, which is that she becomes “emotionally unstable” when she meets Romeo; Juliet is in no way as psychopathic as Regan, but I do think there’s an instability there that isn’t often drawn upon. I mean, yes, of course the two [characters] are antithetical but there’s a damaged wound to them both—except that Regan’s is bigger and more toxic and further down the line.

Do you ever try and imagine the back story of Regan, who we know is the middle of Lear’s three daughters and also the most venal?
I think we all feel in this production that Lear had a second wife, so that Regan and Goneril have a different mother than [youngest daughter] Cordelia. Certainly, in that first scene in the play [where Lear is carving up his kingdom], it is very clear that Goneril and Regan have grown up feeling less than Cordelia. Lear’s light is being shown on Cordelia and in its day, it shone for a little while on Regan and less so on Goneril. Regan was his favorite—a bit of a daddy’s girl—and that now is gone.

How did you arrive at the overt sexuality of your Regan—something that was picked up on instantly in the reviews?
There’s a sexual objectification potentially there between Lear and Regan, and I think that does happen between fathers and daughters. That’s why Regan uses her sexuality to get what she wants: she’s feminine and sexy but also a little doll—a little sexual doll, or so it seems to me.

Was it important to you and Claire Price, who plays Goneril, to differentiate between these two enraged women who often get lumped together by commentators?
I really wanted to make Regan and Goneril different because I believe they are. I’m not interested in seeing tropes of the two ugly sisters because I don’t think that’s a useful story to be telling these days. Regan comes from a hearty, more emotional way of being whereas Goneril is more cerebral and logical; she thinks about what she’s doing while Regan is more reactive. It was important to Claire and to me that these women come across as different, so we’ve continued to carve that journey and it’s sort of grown and grown and grown.

How do you find it in yourself each performance to build towards the horrific scene of the blinding of Gloucester?
I suppose it’s because Regan is not present, in psychological terms; you can’t do something like that and have any sense of consequence, so in a way it’s a sort of game. She’s led by rage towards wanting to show Gloucester a lesson, and the great thing is that Shakespeare takes you there. If you get on that train of the language and the muscle and really lean into what he has written, he will teach you.

Are you able somewhere within yourself to find sympathy for Regan?
I do feel for her, and I know that Claire feels for Goneril. These are women who have no voice or power in a world where women were intensely powerless in a way that we might find hard to appreciate today. I actually feel very sorry for Regan: people who act out in these intensely criminal ways are so clearly deeply unhappy within themselves.

Do you have a sister yourself or any way of relating the play’s dynamic to your own life?
I’ve not got a sister but I do have a brother and can relate to some of the dynamics; a lot of families are crazy, each in their own way.

Is there any talk of taking this production on to New York once this run finishes on November 3?
Whenever that gets mentioned, people flash flirty eyes. We would love to go to New York and I’m kind of manifesting it because I think American audiences would really appreciate this, and it would be fantastic for them to get the opportunity to see Ian in this performance.

Have you performed on the New York stage yourself?
I was in Antigone at BAM [with Juliette Binoche in 2015] and I think that’s it, though it feels as if I’ve done more in New York: I love New York and have been there so much, and my ex-boyfriend [actor Hari Dhillon] was on Broadway for about six months [in the play Disgraced].

And how does it feel as the company prepares to play one performance of this production for cinema audiences around the world?
If you stop and think about it, you go, “Yeah, Christ, that’s quite a big thing,” and it can be quite terrifying. What’s fun is to think that a lot of people will get to see Ian doing this Lear, and that in itself is thrilling.