Promethean Theatre Company's King Lear shines a new light on mental illness

“There are ups and downs to every single character, there’s a good and a bad side,” said Erin Purghart, Promethean Theatre Company’s general manager, in an interview with The Ubyssey.

Purghart, who earned her BFA in acting at UBC, has been involved with Promethean Theatre Company since its first performance. The small theatre company’s current production has big shoes to fill; Shakespeare’s King Lear comes with a lot of expectations, something UBC acting graduate Ava Maria Safai is all too familiar with in her dream role of Reagan in the play.

“Coming into [the role of Reagan], especially when lots of people read this play in a high school English class or college English class and they think they have all the right ideas about who your character is, and then having to come in with something fresh, and maybe surprise or upset some people — yeah, that is very terrifying. But, I hope that people will be open to seeing a different interpretation of the character,” said Maria Safai.

While Maria Safai breathes new life into Reagan, this production also features a modern understanding of the titular character. The Jericho Arts Centre’s website refers to this play as “a story about a dictator’s regime crumbling in light of his dementia, and the unequivocal feeling of ending.” After over a year of the pandemic, it was easy to see how the feeling of ending might be familiar to viewers, but it was the mention of dementia that intrigued me.

“[Shakespeare] doesn’t explicitly say dementia, because they didn’t know what dementia was, but you see this wonderful portrayal of dementia and how horrible it can be for people in that situation and around them, and… we don’t talk about it enough,” said Purghart.

Being able to come back to classic plays with more knowledge about illnesses is a valuable asset, which is something Maria Safai appreciates about the Promethean Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s work.

“The beauty of Shakespeare is that just by watching it, you can interpret it to be anything you like,” said Maria Safai.

“Our job as a cast and crew is just to put something on and hope that the audience will understand what Shakespeare was trying to say and take away their own meaning from it.”

King Lear will be performed at the Jericho Arts Centre until December 23 with tickets available at the door. For more information, check out the Jericho Arts Centre website.

- With files from Manya Malhotra