Actor Benedict Campbell’s familial roots in theatre run deep. His grandmother was Dame Sybil Thorndike a British stage actress for whom Bernard Shaw wrote his legendary Saint Joan. Campbell’s father was Scottish-born actor Douglas Campbell who received many honours for his decades-long contribution to the Canadian theatre scene.

The younger Campbell has followed in his father’s footsteps with 10 seasons at the Stratford Festival — and a dozen seasons at the Shaw Festival — under his belt. Now he’s making his Theatre Calgary debut as the titular king in King Lear directed by Dennis Garnhum.

This is not Campbell’s first outing with the Shakespearean tragedy. He played the Earl of Kent and understudied the role of Lear in a 2002 Stratford Festival production that starred Christopher Plummer. Campbell also portrayed Edmund in a 1985 Stratford staging that featured his father as Lear.

This time however Campbell says the experience is different because he plays the King himself a role many renowned actors before him have undertaken — from Peter Ustinov to the aforementioned Plummer to William Hutt.

Campbell who has also played such mammoth parts as Macbeth and Oedipus in Oedipus Rex says King Lear is a dream role. “I consider it the Everest of the male parts in the Shakespearean canon. It has a complexity to it and a range of emotion and intellect that is only matched by Hamlet but Hamlet is a younger man’s part” he adds. “The beautiful thing about Shakespeare is that he can write in the voice of the old and young.”

Theatre Calgary describes King Lear as the “ultimate family drama.” Lear is an aging king with three daughters. Before he divides his kingdom between them he wants each daughter to demonstrate the depth of their love for him. The two elder daughters Goneril (Colleen Wheeler) and Regan (Jennifer Lines) make elaborate speeches full of false flattery. Cordelia (Andrea Rankin) however speaks plainly and truthfully of her love for her father. Lear is furious that his youngest daughter is not showier in her display of affection and so he disinherits her dividing her share of the kingdom between the other two girls.

Before long Lear discovers the false nature of Regan’s and Goneril’s protestations of love and realizes his grave error regarding Cordelia. Eventually Lear is reunited with her but it comes too late for both of them.

“This play is so complex so multi-layered anything you say about it is trite” says Campbell regarding the themes Shakespeare explores. “It’s a journey of discovery and finding out who the hell you are later in life. Lear has the good fortune of realizing the mistakes he has made and tries to rectify them. His life has come full circle and he’s delighted to be there…. What makes it a tragedy is that it’s all destroyed in one fell swoop.”

While Lear is the principal character Campbell says the play’s second main plot line between the Earl of Gloucester (David Marr) and his two sons Edgar (Tyrell Crews) and Edmund (Michael Blake) is “equal in size and importance.”

“Gloucester is going through the same scale of deception Lear is going through though Lear digs his own grave” says Campbell.

Although the public’s desire to experience live theatre as a form of “mass entertainment” has lessened over the decades Campbell is confident the medium isn’t going away. “Many people in theatre audiences are older and a lot of actors get deeply concerned about this. I was concerned at 22 because you worry there isn’t going to be an audience when you get older. However there has continued to be one.

“Somewhere along the line people end up going to the theatre. Either they return to it or they discover it later in life” he says.

As for his theatrical future Campbell says he’d like to tackle King Lear again as an older actor: “If I have any luck in my life I’ll do it again in my 70s.”

KING LEAR runs from March 10 to April 12 at Max Bell Theatre.