Although there is surely no shortage of Shakespearean actors in England, one theatrical production has decided to avoid the usual audition process for its rendition of King Lear, instead opting for a decidedly unconventional option to fill the roles: sheep. Director Missouri Williams’ aptly titled King Lear With Sheep has forgone a casting call in favor of employing eight reluctant animal participants to “act” alongside one presumably very patient human actor.
As modern reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s work take increasingly imaginative turns—refer to Baz Luhrmann’s tale of two warring mafia families, Romeo + Juliet ; an adapted Twelfth Night starring then-"America’s sweetheart" Amanda Bynes; and countless stagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Jazz Age, 1960s, trailer park, or hipster twists—the idea of King Lear played by sheep nearly seems like a logical next step. Williams’ vision for the show, however, doesn’t simply rely on its non-human participants as a gimmick. Instead, King Lear With Sheep is a play about a play, the story of one frustrated director driven gradually to madness by the non-compliance of his bleating cast members.
According to producer Lucie Elven, King Lear With Sheep encountered as many obstacles as one might expect before making it from farm to stage. Apparently, it’s not easy to find sheep for hire in central London. The fledgling production’s saving grace was “a 20-year-old freelance farmer named Josh,” who offered the services of eight ewes, “hardened doyennes of the farm” accustomed to interacting with audiences on frequent visits to local schools. Now, Josh's sheep are ready for their big break. To pay the sheep’s (or rather, the farmer’s) fees, Williams took on evening shifts at a pub and began teaching English to foreign students. Alasdair Saksena, the brave or possibly foolish actor playing the fictional play’s director, valiantly fought off his allergies. All of them became well-acquainted with their ovine colleagues’ urine.
Over the course of the rehearsal period, the human cast and crew were spared the usual drama of competing actors’ egos, but had to contend instead with pregnancies, birthing, and shearing. This unpredictability left much of the “casting” process up to fate: the fattest sheep naturally won the role of Lear, the most docile was chosen for Cordelia, and the two most disheveled were cast as Kent and Gloucester. Although, none of the sheep had learned their lines by opening night, nor are they expected to take their roles any more seriously by the start of the show’s next run in August. Recent reviews have painted the show as “deliriously absurd and haunting,” and an “uncategorizable delight.”
King Lear With Sheep is essentially a one-man show carried off with aplomb. As the director flails and shouts and desperately attempts to herd his cast into some semblance of Shakespearean order, the audience witnesses a descent into insanity that is intended to mirror King Lear’s own fate. The success of his portrayal will be up to audiences to decide, but the show can guarantee at least one thing: “Sheep! In tiny costumes!”