by Lynn on May 31, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

King Lear

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Eo Sharp
Composed by Keith Thomas
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Starring: Maev Beaty
Evan Buliung
Sarah Farb
Colm Feore
Jonathan Goad
Brad Hodder
Stephen Ouimette
Liisa Ripo-Martell
Mike Shara
Scott Wentworth

Produced by the Stratford Festival. Runs until Oct. 10.

A respectable production with flashes of eye-popping dazzle but with a hollow centre because Colm Feore as King Lear is all technique but little credible heart.

The Story. King Lear decides that he will divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. He says he will divest himself of cares and woe of state and live with each daughter for a month, while they take care of him.

But first he plays a cruel little game with them asking each how much they love him, after which he will give each their share. Cruel because we know he’s already divided up the land and his court knows it. Goneril and Regan wax eloquent. Cordelia, however seems to be new to the game. She frets. She loves him as a daughter should. She tells him that. It’s not good enough. She has nothing else to say. “Nothing comes of nothing, speak again,” says King Lear. She can’t. Lear rages and banishes her. His good friend Kent tries to plead Cordelia’s case. He too is banished.

It goes downhill from there with Goneril and Regan being exasperated and furious with their visiting father and his large retinues. They throw him out into a storm. He goes mad. He realizes Cordelia was true and Goneril and Regan were false.

Another father, Gloucester, also has trouble recognizing the worth of his two sons. Edmund is his eldest and illegitimate, but still accepted by his father. Edgar is Gloucester’s legitimate son. Edgar is a trusting soul, loved by his father and hated by his jealous brother. Here too a father blind to the truth about his sons learns the hard way which son really loves him.

The Production. As the audience files into the auditorium a man in tattered, dirty clothes, sits upstage, head in hands. Behind him is a kind of camp fire. The man gets up and scurries off then comes back and sits again. There are other people as dirty with him. They sit on stage until the play proper starts. I’m thinking that the man might be King Lear and that director Antoni Cimolino is starting the play in Act III, on the heath, when Lear is thrown out into the storm by his daughters. But no, it’s not King Lear on closer examination. It’s someone else and I don’t know who because the play hasn’t actually begun. The main man appears throughout the production, starring down characters in places of power, and certainly in the last scene. The point of which is mystifying. Are they the homeless of King Lear’s day? Are they people he banished in a fit of peak? A mystery.

When King Lear does appear he is long-haired, grey-bearded and seemingly old and weary. He plops down on his throne. He prepares all for the game of “how much do you love me.” He preens waiting for their answer. Goneril gets right into it telling him how much she loves him, taking in the room with her arms. She gets her share and is happy. Regan is next and she too gets into it coming up behind him and putting her arms around him. She’s happy with her portion.

I look to see their reaction when Lear comes to Cordelia “Now, our joy…what can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.” I don’t note that either Goneril or Regan start at this bit of information or exchange irritated glances that while they have played the game, their sister will get a better share. Perhaps they know that her share will in fact be exactly equal to each of theirs. In any case it doesn’t matter because Cordelia doesn’t play the game and is banished.

The two eldest daughters do certainly have their issues with their father—you don’t have angry, damaged women like that appear fully formed from nowhere. There were formed by a mean, emotionally abusive father who never gave them genuine affection and only patronized them to get what he wanted. Both Goneril and Regan appear reasonable initially trying to deal with their father and his large retinue.

As Goneril, Maev Beaty is regal, gracious, and distraught with Lear’s final invective to her. She handles the poetry beautifully. As Regan, Liisa Repo-Martell is twitchy, skittish, but ready to do damage. She seems less assured with the language. I do think she misses an opportunity finally to let Lear know how she feels about him. When she gives him a hard time about his retinue, he says in desperation, “I gave you all.” And her wonderful line in return, “And in good time you gave it,” is almost thrown away instead of making a moment of it to let him and the audience know how much it cost her.

The violent scene with Cornwall and Gloucester is particularly harrowing because Cornwall fake lunges at him with a knife and pulls back, then goes for the gusto on the second pass. As Cornwall, the black-clad Mike Shara revels in the evil of it all and is dangerous. I just wish that when he rails at him in the scene it was done with less volume so we could actually make out what he was saying.

Stephen Ouimette is an understated Fool. Sad, mournful, reasoned, brave to contradict his master considering what happened to the others who crossed him. As Gloucester, the other ‘blind’ father, Scott Wentworth invests emotion, sorrow, and desperation in his lovely performance.

As King Lear, Colm Feore has consummate technique, a commanding stage presence, a dextrous facility with the language and I don’t get any sense of an actual person there. It’s all show, bombast and grimacing. This works if you believe that the whole thing is just so much playacting, that that is how Lear has conducted his life and his two older daughters know that. But what do we make of the scenes on the heath, when he loses his mind, gains wisdom and is supposed to have a sense of humility and humanity? Again, I think it’s all technique with no heart.

There are exceptions though in his performance. When Regan and Goneril question why he needs a retinue at all he says “Reason not the need….” Throwing up his arms in total frustration that he has to explain the inexplicable. This is done with his back to the audience—brave choice by director Cimolino—and with his arms up and his shoulders slumped in utter defeat. Feore’s Lear is heartbreaking here. He is also heartbreaking when he carries on the lifeless Cordelia. This comes from a well of pain and suffering that is palpable, at last.

Special mention must be made of the storm. It’s the perfect melding of the work of set designer Eo Sharp, the lighting of Michael Walton, and the sound of Thomas Ryder Payne. The lightening is blinding. The thunder is deafening. You want to put up an umbrella in the theatre for protection.

Comment. I love the play because of the deep well of psychological issues and problems that are dealt with. I respect director Antoni Cimolino and his commitment to realizing his themes in the play. I know there is a brain there in his work. What I miss is a heart and soul in the playing of King Lear. What I get is a skilled technician who is all posing and tricks with no heart.

Opened: May 26, 2014.
Closes: October 10, 2014
Cast: 23; 19 men, 4 women
Running Time: 3 hours with an intermission.

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