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[Herald Interview] Actor Lee Soon-jae celebrates 68-year acting career as King Lear

May 23, 2023 - 19:12 By Hwang Dong-hee
Actor Lee Soon-jae rehearses a scene from the play "King Lear" by William Shakespeare during a press conference held in Seoul, May 10. (Yonhap)

Actor Lee Soon-jae, celebrating the 68th year of his acting career this year, is set to make his return as King Lear in William Shakespeare’s tragic play “King Lear.”

The production, which sold out during its premiere in 2021, is scheduled for performances at the LG Arts Center in Gangseo-gu, Seoul, from June 1-18.

Lee will play the role of King Lear, an aged king whose plan to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom equally among his three daughters ends tragically.

“A classic is different each time it is performed. This time, we aimed to bring out more of Shakespeare’s passion for the people,” said Lee during a recent interview with The Korea Herald in May at a rehearsal room in Mapo-gu, Seoul.

The actor recited a line from the play: Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel. That thou mayst shake the superflux to them. And show the heavens more just.

“When Lear loses his power, he gains insight into his own nature and finally sees the world as it is,” explained Lee.

Highlighting the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s works, Lee said, “Why do Shakespeare’s works continue to speak to us today? The literary value and philosophical messages remain valid even hundreds of years, and they will be relevant for future generations.”

A scene from a 2021 “King Lear” performance (Theater Yeonwoo)

While there might have been a societal message conveyed within the context of feudal lordship during Shakespeare's period, it is evident that the current context has changed.

But Lee also encouraged the audience to find valuable lessons within the context of contemporary situations.

"The play is filled with hidden messages that resonate with us. One still relevant lesson is to never pass on (our legacy) until we depart from this world," he added, with a chuckle.

The production team, which Lee is also part of as the artistic director, has touched up the details to put on a classic play as original as possible while refining translations to deliver the lines more effectively to modern audiences.

“The play is set in the 8th century B.C. The costumes and props are designed to create an authentic ancient atmosphere,” said director Kim Si-bun during a press conference on May 10.

“We have also put significant effort in refining the lines and vocabularies to ensure they are easily understood by the audience.”

A scene from a 2021 “King Lear” performance (Theater Yeonwoo)
A scene from a 2021 “King Lear” performance (Theater Yeonwoo)

Lee also stressed the importance of accurate line delivery.

“Academics and theater are different. Theater needs to be appreciated and understood by the audience,” said Lee. “Shakespeare’s plays are mixed with monologues and asides. We are focusing on delivering the lines with the right rhythm.”

This 16-day performance could be the last chance to meet Lee as King Lear, according to the production team. The 88-year-old actor has expressed his intention to pass the role to successors.

Producer Youn Wan-seok said Lee holds a remarkable record for being the oldest actor in the history of Korean theater. They plan to apply for setting a Guinness World Record with Lee as the oldest actor to star in a Shakespeare play.

In response, Lee said, “The number simply indicates that I am old, but that’s not important. What truly matters is performing the play right. I’m giving it my all and doing my best.”