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Colm Feore says playing ‘King Lear’ not about age

Actor Colm Feore was a little intimidated to tackle the title role in Shakespeare’s “King Lear — which he did for the first time at the Stratford Festival in Canada last year. That critically acclaimed performance was filmed and is opening Wednesday at theaters in Chicago and across the nation.

“As for playing Lear himself, I first thought it might be a really dumb idea,” said Feore while in Chicago to promote the movie theater presentations. “But as I discussed it with Anthony Cimolino [the Stratford Festival’s artistic director] and we did a bit of research into it, we said, ‘Wait a minute! What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of the idea that you’re supposed to be 75?’ Certainly not. After all, it was originally written for a guy who was 36.

“The real struggle with ‘Lear’ is that it is enormously physically demanding. I wouldn’t do this play next week, let alone next year. Now I realize I should have done it at 45, not 55, because it’s so emotionally and physically exhausting.

“I’m the first guy in 30 years to carry the girl on stage at the end at Stratford. That is essentially as Shakespeare wanted it, so no one can fail to empathize with the guy who is holding the body of his dead child. So no matter how badly this guy has behaved throughout this show — and Lear has behaved abominably — he is forgiven at this moment. It’s all about trying to feel for him at that final moment.”

Feore pointed to one famed thespian whose performance as the aged, increasingly mad ruler is considered iconic.

“Paul Scofield was the Lear of his generation, and here’s the thing: His first Lear was at age 40. Then he filmed it at 50. A lot of people in the movie were older than him. He was simply just a very old soul, and he did something with it that was magnificent.

“So I realized my age was not a hindrance in the least, and I came to think that maybe I do have something new to say here with this incredible role. ‘Hamlet’ is a breeze compared to ‘King Lear.’ And ‘Lear’ is half the length!”

Feore was delighted to be a key player in the process of filming the live theatrical performance.

“Most people can’t go to Stratford, and let’s face it, even if you can, it’s not cheap,” he said. “So this is a wonderful way to get this out as far as we can around the globe — into schools, libraries, universities and regular movie theaters.

“The technology has improved so much. The cameras are so miniature and now can be put discreetly into places where they are not intrusive on the stage. The microphones are phenomenal. We have 128 tracks of perfect sound to mix from.

Feore thinks “King Lear” continues to resonate with audiences half a millennium after it was written because of contemporary family dynamics.

“Anthony Cimolino said something to me that I think was extraordinarily insightful. He noted that this is a period in human history that is unusual and really hasn’t happened before — where the middle generation is raising very young children and also dealing with very old parents.

“On the one hand, they are dealing with developing young people and helping them start their life journeys on the correct path. But then, they have to turn around and watch dementia and all kinds of other illnesses of old age take hold of their elders. These are illnesses that plague our elderly in their advanced years that didn’t occur centuries ago, because people didn’t live that long.”

Chicago area theaters where the Stratford Festival production of “King Lear” can be seen Wednesday: Showplace ICON, Regal City North, Cinemark Evanston, Niles 12, Chicago Heights, Lincolnshire 21, Addison 21 and Cinemark Woodridge. Check with each theater or go to stratfordfestivalhd.com to get individual show times.