Birmingham REP Foundry graduate Farrah Chaudhry offers an insight into the process of writing Cordelia, half of our double-bill Lear/Cordelia that brings together Shakespeare and new writing.
When Ben [Spiller, 1623 artistic director] asked me if I wanted to work with 1623 on their upcoming project Lear/Cordelia, their most ambitious to date, I almost chewed his hand off.
To give a voice to one of Shakespeare's most sidelined characters, I mean, this is the stuff that writers dream of.
1623's vision was clear: after a rigorous R&D phase, where medical experts diagnosed King Lear with several types of dementia, we were embarking on placing King Lear and his three daughters into modern day, and within this context, we would explore how the themes of Shakespeare's tragedy resonate with our world. We knew we wanted two sides to this story – both the King's, and his youngest daughter's, hence the title Lear/Cordelia. Ben took the first half, Lear, and I took the second half, Cordelia. The premise was that Ben would work with Shakespeare's text to build the first half and I would create a new piece of work for my half. Could I have a harder act to follow than Shakespeare? I think not!
One thing was clear, I had to put Shakespeare aside. There was no way I was about to be compared to him. Instead, I took Cordelia, and all the things she stood for. Her bravery, her courage and her integrity. There wasn't much else we knew about her, and that suited me fine, because there's lots you can do with a blank canvas, and it saves my Cordelia being compared to Shakespeare's. And this is what drew me in the first place to the project; it's every writer's dream to add their mumblings to the works of the greatest writer of all time. So once I established who Cordelia was to me, and the things I believed she stood for, I placed her in the world that we, as a company, had created – where she's a left-wing junior doctor in France, who's come home to the UK to help her father, Lear, a former Tory cabinet member, move into his care home after his dementia diagnosis. My next job was to build these two characters into three-dimensional people with feelings.
I knew Lear quite well as Shakespeare has given us a breadth of detail, so it was mainly Cordelia I had to flesh out so that I could get to know her, understand her dreams, her fears; her relationship with her father, with her job, with her duties as a daughter and her responsibilities as a doctor. I started writing short monologues and musings, just for myself, just in a notebook, the things she'd say if she was having dinner with Lear (and her sisters too, they have had a big impact on how she's turned out), the things she'd do in a moment of crisis, how she felt when she became a doctor, how she felt when she first heard a bomb in the middle east, how she may react to someone asking her out on a date; really small things that would turn her into a real person, so that I could then attempt to articulate her words and sentences. I also did some research on the different forms of dementia Lear has and looked into how it may affect his life and his relationships. I also had grandparents who had dementia, so had first-hand experience on it. So I tapped into the different layers of information I had, and overlaid it with the Lear we know, the stubborn, arrogant, ruthless man that Shakespeare depicts so well. If we add the fact that he's an ex Tory cabinet member too, we have a really interesting set up, especially when you throw both him and Cordelia in a room together.
That's where my idea to have my entire 45-minute piece in closed time/closed space came from (real time and all in one location). I wanted the tension of these two people bubbling away throughout, increasing as the play went on. I wanted the audience to feel – in real time – with the characters, with no time away, no scenes where time had passed, all in the moment, right now; as if the audience were flies on a wall in this living room. Feeling the emotions with both Lear and Cordelia. As with any piece of writing, you've got to give each character a goal, and then place hurdles in their way. For me, the goals for both characters were easy. Lear doesn't want to move into the care home, he wants Cordelia to look after him and Cordelia doesn't want to stay to look after him, she wants to go home, to France. They're both pulling in opposite directions and this makes for great conflict between the characters, increasing tension and resulting in a climax and resolution – the basic formula to any play. After deciding the emotional action of the piece, and where each character was headed, the dialogue came naturally. It's like the characters just started speaking for themselves.
Writing Cordelia is one of my proudest achievements; giving one of Shakespeare's most marginalised characters a voice is an honour and working with such an amazing director, together with the entire company, was absolutely fantastic. Writing a script is only a portion of the work, you need a great team to turn your words into a real life truth. Louie [Ingham (director of Cordelia)], Gemma [Paige North (Cordelia)] and David [Henry (Lear)] brought the play to life and gave it such beautiful depth. Even if it moves one person, makes them think about how dementia might be impacting them, encourages them consider duty and honour, inspires them to question why we act the way we do, causes them to think about why we hurt those around us, challenges them to see the world differently, I have done my job.