King Lear with Sheep: putting the ‘ba’ in Bard

King Lear with Sheep. Picture: Nick Morris

King Lear with Sheep. Picture: Nick Morris - Credit: Archant

Anna Behrmann finds out the story of Hackney’s strangest show, King Lear with Sheep

Performing Shakespeare might be the career highlight for most budding young actors, but the cast of King Lear with Sheep are taking it in their stride.

In a new adaption of King Lear, a director tries to persuade his cast of nine sheep to perform the tragedy. Originally performed at a Sussex farm, it is being brought to Hackney for the first time, with the animals hailing from a city farm in Vauxhall.

Alasdair Saksena, 24, is playing the director, and he is surprisingly unfazed about performing with sheep. “It’s the same as acting with people really,” he says. “I was rehearsing with them this morning, and they do sort of respond to their names.

“I think because they’re so used to looking out for predators that they see your eyes and they know where you’re looking,” he explains. “So if you say their name, they’ll look back at you. They don’t have a script so they think everything’s improv.”

Actor Saksena, writer Missouri Williams and producer Lucie Elven are all in their early 20s, living the thespian life in and around Hackney. “I’ve known Missouri for a few years,” Saksena says. “She came back from doing a tour of King Lear – the full play with human beings – and was very much sick of them.

“There’s little references to sheep within the text that I think planted the idea in Missouri’s head. And so she decided to do King Lear with sheep and me. And I thought, you can’t really say no to that, can you?”

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It’s certainly an original idea, and Saksena is a good salesman for the sheep. “The line between tragedy and comedy is very thin and I think the play treads that line very well,” he says. “Lear is so tragic and sheep are so untragic that it just sort of works – it comes together and is either desperately sad or desperately funny depending on what mood is catching at that particular point in time.”

In the original Shakespearean play, Lear decides to divide his kingdom up between his daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril. He only demands that each of his daughters profess their love for him. While the flattery trips off the tongue from Regan and Goneril, Cordelia refuses to be swept up. Replying that she loves him only as a daughter would, she is banished from the kingdom.

“Sheep are silent and Cordelia is silent at the beginning of the play,” Saksena says. “Nothing will come from nothing and so he casts her off. And that silence is the event that tortures Lear throughout the play – drives him mad.

“Having that silence directly confronted with animals really pinpoints the absurdity of Lear’s reaction and the absurdity of Cordelia’s unwillingness to speak at the beginning,” Saksena continues. “All she needed to do was to say a few words of flattery, dishonest as they would be, and her dad could have kept the kingdom.”

The ideas behind the script might be well-thought out, but ultimately the sheep lead the way in the improvisation. Saksena admits that the play is “a sort of jumble between my ideas, Missouri’s ideas, and Shakespeare’s words.”

However much the director prepares and makes his actors practice, each show is a leap into the unknown. “There’s always an element of unpredictability with the sheep,” Saksena admits.

King Lear with Sheep is at the Courtyard August 12 - 16. For tickets, visit