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Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Quality of Something: King Lear opens in Stratford

King Lear, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Eo Sharpe
Featuring Colm Feore, Maeve Beaty, Scott Wentworth, Evan Buliung

Colm Feore as King Lear, with Sara Farb as Cordelia
Photo: David Hou
The Story: An aging King Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters based on how much they say they love him. When his most beloved daughter Cordelia answers with simple honesty, Lear becomes enraged and banishes her, giving her share of the kingdom to her two older and more obsequious sisters. Likewise his friend the Earl of Gloucester puts stake in the wrong son, and these events set in motion not only a war, but the eventual downfall of both men.

Those who follow theatre news have long been aware of the brewing media storm that is now engulfing Colm Feore as he has tackled the role of King Lear at the Stratford Festival. It is very apt, paralleling that great scene on the heath, and as anyone who saw the opening night performance on Monday, it is also very, very well-deserved.

One of the dangers of living in Stratford and seeing some of the same actors on stage for several years running is that one begins to anticipate - or dread, in some cases - exactly how a particular actor will breathe life into a character. That is to say, they get typecast, their mannerisms become ingrained, habitual, and therefore... well, boring.

Antoni Cimolino's production of King Lear is not boring. The costumes are historical, the stage is all but bare excepting some small props, the music is subtle, the interpretation fresh, and the acting singularly untypical, and inhabitual - and therefore superb.
Maev Beaty as Goneril
Photo: David Hou
Leading the way is Colm Feore, never more generous, never more surprising as King Lear. He clearly shows Lear's path, a very smart one chosen by director Antoni Cimolino, as a man slowly robbed of his identity and therefore his sanity. It is beautiful to watch this character interpreted not as a feeble-minded man aging into dementia, but as an overbearing father whose lack of perception leaves him out of touch with his daughters and in fact, his entire kingdom. The family dynamic set up by Mr. Cimolino is one of long-suppressed dysfunction that finally and viciously explodes into a stunned audience. Mr. Feore's manner of building to blinding fury is almost gentle - until it is not.  In this way he shows a King who still believes he has the power to call forth a storm to equal his heart's rage - and he does. And even more inspiring, Mr. Feore's surrender to the storm does not simply trigger Lear's descent into madness, but rather it triggers his surrender to a new reality for himself, one where a king is just a man, a man should be a good father, and that father is mortal. His madness stems from not being able to immediately reconcile the two, and it is a brilliantly played arc.

Maev Beaty provides the best support for this interpretation in her role as Goneril. Where Liisa Repo-Martel's Regan is stony and petulant, and Sara Farb's Cordelia is tender but flat, Ms. Beaty's Goneril is every adult child fed up with the bad decisions of an aging and imposing parent. Her Goneril is a woman who wants to keep her home in order, has a life of her own to live, has a partial kingdom to keep ticking along. But she has a father - whom she still loves - who runs up her bills while letting his knights ruin her carpets. Anyone of the sandwich generation can identify with her frustration, and at Goneril's utter horror when her father turns on her so savagely. In fact, at this point, Lear seems to be just a nasty piece of work, and Goneril the victim, and it was wonderfully different to see her turn from having genuine affection for her father, to being her father's daughter indeed - Ms. Beaty's Goneril out-Lears Lear himself in her savagery.

Evan Buliung as Edgar and Scott Wentworth as Gloucester
Photo: David Hou
In the parallel story of Gloucester and his sons, the chemistry between Scott Wentworth and Evan Buliung as Gloucester and Edgar is discernible, even from a distance. Evan Buliung has a marvelous talent for melancholy thoughtfulness that leaves an indelible mark on his audiences, and Mr. Cimolino's attention to small textual details pays off in spades, particularly with Edgar's character: Edgar is initially wanton, so his later admission of a litany of sins while disguised as Tom O'Bedlam makes sense; there is early identification of "Bedlam beggars" on the stage, and Edgar takes notice of them (far earlier than Lear), and while Kent pushes them away, Edgar reaches out to them at play's end - these all signal a complete identity and perspective shift for Edgar, leaving this very grim play with a sliver of hope that under his rule, things will be very different. 

As Mr. Cimolino notes in an earlier article in the Toronto Star, his bench for Lear is very deep. Brad Hodder proves himself an chameleon, playing a good hero last season (Cassio) and a truly despicable but two-dimensional villain Edmund this season, and Mike Shara does his creepy best with the also two-dimensional Cornwall. There are others who give weight and presence on stage no matter what role they perform - Jonathan Goad as Kent, Michael Blake as Albany, Scott Wentworth as Gloucester, Stephen Ouimette as the Fool - the only real criticism one can make of the play (not the production) is that the Fool needs to be played by a good actor, but there is never enough for that good actor to do in the role of the Fool. Mr. Ouimette delivers the Fool's knock-out punches to an oblivious Lear in the same gentle and off-handed way Lear's own angry rants begin which is a nice touch, as is his inarticulately wordless departure, but - and this is a criticism of the production - ultimately the cuts to the Fool's lines makes his departure all the more abrupt, and makes this good actor seem all the more underused. 

That being said, this is an immaculate, thoughtful production that hits all the right marks and some surprisingly high notes, and although it may not have audiences in tears, it should leave them gasping for breath. King Lear, starring Colm Feore, continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 10th. Update: due to overwhelming popularity, King Lear will continue to run until October 25th.

Edgar: Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.  
    ~King Lear, V, iii.

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