It would be facile to draw too many parallels between the title figure in “King Lear” and former president Donald J. Trump.
For one thing, Lear surrendered his power willingly (if unwisely). For another, the ex-ruler in Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy eventually expresses contrition for his lack of compassion — a decidedly un-Trumpian gesture. And Trump’s powers of language are, um, somewhat short of Shakespearean.
But certain similarities seem apparent to actor Denis O’Hare as he prepares to perform excerpts from “King Lear” on Feb. 6 and talk about interpretive approaches to the character in the latest installment of “The Actor’s Craft,” an online series by Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.
“Look at the Trump administration, all the backstabbing and betrayals and the throwing under the bus,” says O’Hare in an interview from his home in Paris. “And look at what he did. He ruined every single person who came out of his administration. He ruined John Bolton — an awful human being, but I got a twinge of pity even for him. They were awful people . . . but they all got ruined by him. That’s part of this play.”
In “King Lear,” Lear’s actions trigger a deadly round of power grabs and double-crosses by a malevolent trio that includes two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, along with Edmund, son of the Earl of Gloucester. The king’s egotism and narcissistic self-absorption spawn chaos and result in enormous suffering to the people in his orbit, especially Cordelia, the only one of Lear’s daughters who genuinely loves him, and Gloucester, who pays an unspeakable price for his loyalty to the monarch.
“There’s no cognate in the Trump administration for Cordelia,” says O’Hare. “I don’t know who that would be. She’s the one innocent person who doesn’t deserve any of this, and she gets chewed up and spit out as well.”
“It’s always great for Shakespeare to be able to be put in modern dress, because then you invite people to make modern comparisons,” he adds. “You don’t need to push it too heavily, because you’re never going to get a one-on-one correspondence. So in the Trump administration, who are the [equivalent of Lear’s] three daughters? You could say it’s Ivanka and Don Jr. and — what’s the other one? — Eric. But it doesn’t really scan because they’re all evil. There’s no good one.”
O’Hare is a protean performer who has left an indelible stamp on roles that in recent years have included Jessie, an ex-addict and former lover of William, on NBC’s “This Is Us”; quirky, ultraliberal Judge Charles Abernathy on CBS’s “The Good Fight” and “The Good Wife”; vampire king Russell Edgington on HBO’s “True Blood”; and characters in FX’s “American Horror Story” who have included a man greatly disfigured by burns, a con artist, a mute butler, and a transgender bartender named Liz Taylor.
Onstage, O’Hare won a 2003 Tony Award for his portrayal of a solitary money manager in Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out.” In 2013, he delivered a mesmerizing solo performance at Boston’s Paramount Center of “An Iliad,” an adaptation of Homer’s epic poem by him and Lisa Peterson. Two years ago he starred as “Tartuffe” at London’s National Theatre. (”I would never do ‘Tartuffe’ in Paris,” O’Hare says wryly. “I’d be torn to pieces. I’m not French, and it’s Moliere.”)
O’Hare has played the title roles in “Richard III” and “Macbeth” (”I would never do that again,” he says of portraying the Scottish king. “It was miserable.”), and he still glows at the memory of playing Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet.” But one Shakespearean role O’Hare has never played is ... King Lear.
“I’m too young to play Lear,” the 59-year-old actor contends, though he adds that “as Blair Brown, my friend, points out, the actor who played it in Shakespeare’s company was 46.” O’Hare has seen the powerful 1970 film version of “King Lear” starring Paul Scofield and the 1983 TV-movie portrayal by Laurence Olivier, and he also saw Anthony Hopkins perform it in the mid-1980s at the National Theatre. When he is considering taking a role, O’Hare tries to avoid watching interpretations by other actors. “For me, I have to own a part,” he says. “I want to own it completely.”
O’Hare says that what intrigues him about Lear is that the king is “not a sympathetic hero.” Indeed, in his view, Lear is “an [expletive]” who “totally deserves what happens to him in many ways.”
“I don’t like those big noble characters. I would never play Henry IV,” says O’Hare, who once turned down an offer to play Hamlet. “Lear attracts me more because he is so flawed, is such an angry character. Part of the joy of discovery is trying to figure out the many different flavors and the evolution of his rage. He goes from a place of incredible power to a place of incredible weakness. In the process of becoming weak, he sees himself more clearly, and sees the world more clearly.”
On Feb. 6, O’Hare plans to perform two excerpts from “King Lear”: the scene when a storm-battered Lear realizes that as a ruler he was oblivious to the suffering of the poor and homeless (“O, I have ta’en too little care of this!” he laments) and another moment of self-awareness when the outcast king encounters the blinded Gloucester (“They told me I was everything,” says Lear. “‘Tis a lie . . .”
Speaking of self-awareness: As he talks about the multidimensional monarch he’ll be exploring on Feb. 6, O’Hare pauses for an acknowledgement of something that is already apparent to his interlocutor. “Now, of course, it will get into my DNA and I’m sure I will play it at some point,” he says.
THE ACTOR’S CRAFT
Featuring Denis O’Hare on “King Lear.” Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Feb. 6 at 4 p.m. Free of charge, but a donation of $10 is suggested. Advance registration is required at www.commshakes.org.
Story has been updated to reflect a rescheduled time for the event.