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Bill Irwin plays the fool in the Public theater's King Lear

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin, who is best known for his expert clowning abilities, is playing the Fool in the Public Theater’s production of “King Lear” alongside an impressive cast including Sam Waterston and Kelli O’Hara.

Have you ever done “King Lear” before?
Never. It’s actually the first Shakespeare play I ever read all the way through. ... It’s just a great play to take a run in and give it a go.

How does the Fool compare with other Shakespeare characters you’ve performed?
I’ve only played comic roles in Shakespeare. The Fool is also comic but not in the same way. He might be the smartest guy onstage in a certain sense. He’s not out of it or befuddled.

Is being a fool the same as a clown?
They have a common ancestry. There’s a long European tradition of kings and noblemen keeping fools. A clown is a complicated term in Shakespeare because it means rustic as well as funny. I’m trying to bring my history of clowning into this role.

What show would you like to do next?
There’s an ongoing but complicated attempt to do “Endgame” but I¹m not sure when that’s going to happen.

“King Lear” plays at the Public Theater through Nov. 20. 425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555, publictheater.org.

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