by Lynn on June 3, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Playing until Oct. 29, 2023.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Set by Judith Bowden

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Composer, Sean Mayes

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Supervising Fight Director, Geoff Scovell

Cast: Michael Blake

Richard Comeau

Déjah Dixon-Green

Austin Eckert

Jakob Ehman

Paul Gross

Andrew Iles

David W. Keeley

John Kirkpatrick

Josue Laboucane

Devin MacKinnon

Patrick McManus

Antony Santiago

André Sills

Tara Sky

Shannon Taylor

Gordon Patrick White

Rylan Wilkie

A generally eye-brow knitting production with seemingly deliberate laughs inserted that up-ends the play. Paul Gross is a vibrant, energetic, confident King Lear definitely playing against the character’s age.

The Story. King Lear has divided his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. He has done this before the play begins. We learn this at the very top of the production when two courtiers, Kent and Gloucester, talk about the division that has taken place. King Lear then announces this decision in open court, professing old age, and wanting to divest himself of the care and worry of ruling.

But before he parcels out the land, he has his daughters play a game. Each daughter has to tell him how much she loves him first, as if it depends on what parcel he will give her. Cordelia is the last to be asked. She is introduced as “our Joy” and Lear says tell me how much you love me and you’ll get a portion 1/3 better than your sisters’. Right away we see the meanness of the game. I don’t get the sense this is the first time he’s played the game on Goneril and Regan. This might be the first time with Cordelia because she tells him she hasn’t got anything to say to the question of how much do I love you.

King Lear says, famously, “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” She tells him she loves him like a dutiful daughter. King Lear is still not happy. Cordelia has two suitors and Lear asks them to decide who will take her off his hands. That sets into motion all manner of discord in the court, between the other two daughters, etc. King Lear planned to divide the land among the daughters and to visit each daughter once a month with 100 knights. And in a sense, still rule, but be taken care of by each daughter while he does it. That too is in jeopardy.

I call King Lear mean because he’s deliberately playing each daughter against the others for his own ego, even though he’s already divided the land.

The first line of the play proves this. Kent says to Gloucester “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.” Meaning, on the basis of the division, Kent thought that the king liked Albany (Goneril’s husband) more than Cornwall, (Regan’s husband). Gloucester then says that it looked like it initially but then he saw that the land was divided absolutely fairly. Thus, proving that the game was rigged to begin with pertaining to the daughters…the land was already divided evenly, so what’s with this game?

I will also add that King Lear is an abusive father to play these cruel games with his daughters. It should be no mystery where you get scheming daughters like Goneril and Regan, with a father like King Lear. And he hates to be challenged. When King Lear is challenged as Kent does when Lear banishes Cordelia, Lear rages against him. When Lear is later challenged by his daughters about why he needs so many knights with him, he says, “reason not the need.” Meaning “I NEED THEM” and don’t ask why. When Goneril and Regan challenge him, King Lear can’t cope. He believes he is going mad. Worse than getting old is going mad or insane. The play progresses from there until King Lear has to hit rock bottom until he realizes that Cordelia was in fact loving, loyal and true.

The Production. Director Kimberley Rampersad seems to have envisioned a post-apocalyptic world with Judith Bowden’s set composed of overpowering walls that crunch and grind when they move, with accompanying crackling florescent bulbs along some walls.

Michelle Bohn’s costumes suggest some kind of otherworldly design of startling, formfitting, costumes in vibrant colours for Goneril (Shannon Taylor) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green), more flowing dresses in pastels for Cordelia (Tara Sky), black garb for the courtiers and the most stylish tailored shirts for King Lear (Paul Gross).

I found the production interesting, odd, and even very funny. I never anticipated so much humour before and it was by accident. I’m pretty sure it’s not a good idea.

Kimberley Rampersad who has directed fascinating smaller productions at the Shaw Festival such as O’Flaherty, V.C. and Chitra. But larger work such as Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival and Serving Elizabeth at Stratford last year were problematic in concept and in direction. Her ideas for King Lear were eye-brow knitting.

King Lear says frequently that he’s crawling towards death and that he’s old with lots of repetition of the word “old”. But Paul Gross, at 64 is not old, not playing old, and not attempting apparently to play old. He’s playing a fit, robust, energetic and impish man in full command of all his faculties both physical and mental. He does not stop moving, with purpose, energy and resolve. He handles the language beautifully and plays games with the language at the get go.

When he says he’s crawling towards death, he over accentuates the word deaaaaaaaaath, so that he’s making a joke of it. He’s not being ironic. He’s being sarcastic. I can only assume this is a decision between director and actor. My question is why? How is the play served here?

I also found this to be the funniest production of King Lear I have ever seen. Again, this seems deliberate. When the Duke of Cornwall (Rylan Wilkie) violently takes out the eyeballs of Gloucester (Anthony Santiago), there’s lots of gushing of fluid and plopping of an eye-ball on the floor. Great ‘ewwwwww’ factor from the audience. Immediately after this a courtier is seen crawling, wiping the floor with a rag to get up the glop, and then crawling off to the side exit.  The audience laughed out loud. Really? After several previews the cause of that laugh wouldn’t have been apparent? Then I can only conclude that laugh is deliberate. It takes the audience out of the horrific moment. The audience does not need comic relief. They need to be kept in the horror as it builds and builds.

Director Kimberley Rampersad also embellishes romantic subtext between Goneril and her servant Oswald (Devin MacKinnon). The subtext is there in the text. Rampersad feels the need to ramp it up.

Goneril is giving an important speech as a soliloquy about Lear and her sister Regan and behind her is her servant Oswald (Devin MacKinnon) putting a necklace around her neck. He’s not her dresser. This looks like a present a lover gives. We are to believe Goneril will wear the necklace for the whole production without her husband, the Duke of Albany (Austin Eckert) actually seeing it. Why? To show how dim her husband is?  He’s not.

We don’t see any development of this relationship for much of the production. Then much later when Goneril wants to toy with Oswald’s affections using Edmund (Michael Blake), Goneril takes off the necklace, with great show, and holds it out to Edmund, who’s favour she wants. She takes a moment, then looks back at Oswald, smiling at him suggesting she’s dumping his favours for a new lover. This too got a laugh.

Isn’t the play hard enough to decipher without creating extra attention-grabbing subtext when subtlety generally works just as effectively? Shakespeare does a nice job depicting Goneril and Regan as mean, damaged women. These extra bits of business suggests that Rampersad doesn’t think that’s enough.

On the heath, in the storm scene when Lear is truly going mad and he meets “Poor Tom”, actually Edger (André Sills) in disguise as a mad man, there are also lots of other shrouded beings scurrying around. I’m thinking, who are they? Did they get misdirected from Macbeth to King Lear by mistake. Again, eye-brow-knitting.

Directing on the Festival thrust stage is a challenge even for any accomplished director, let alone a director new to the space, as Kimberley Rampersad is. You have to stage and direct for the whole space so that all areas of the audience can see and hear what is going on. So, while those in the center of the audience could see perfectly,  I wonder if those on the extreme left and right aisles could see the verbal exchange at the beginning of the production, when Gloucester and Kent (David W. Keeley) have their first speech, because both are talking upstage-centre, half-hidden by a pillar. Often many actors are facing upstage to deliver their lines. Audibility is a problem in many cases.

That said, I was grateful for Paul Gross’s confident handling of the language, in spite of his not playing Lear old. I was grateful also for Shannon Taylor as a strong, driven Goneril; David W. Keeley as a bold Kent; Andre Sills as a trusting, but then commanding Edgar; Michael Blake as a wily Edmund and Rylan Wilkie as a venomous Cornwall. They all handled the poetry and language with confidence.

I thought it a wonderful stroke for Kimberley Rampersad to cast Gordon Patrick White as the Fool. Gordon Patrick White is Indigenous and his casting in this part added a layer of complexity—that the Fool is also a mournful trickster. I thought that was inspired casting.

The fight, by Geoff Scovell the Supervising Fight Director, with axe and sword between Edmund and Edgar at the end of the production, was chilling and death defying. So, the production is not without a lot of positive points.

It’s just that the overall effect is uneven in concept and while it tries to re-image the play in a ‘new’ way, I don’t think the actual production serves the play.  

Comment. There is a discernible divide between actors who are comfortable with Shakespeare’s language (perhaps because they have studied it formally, either in theatre school or a conservatory) and those who struggle to make the language and poetry sound like comfortable conversation. The Stratford Festival offers all of its actors the opportunity to delve into Shakespeare’s language by hearing it, playing and perfecting it.

Purists will insist that the language, meter and proper pronunciation must conform to the strict rules of iambic pentameter. Which brings us to the word “revenue” (income). Following the form of iambic pentameter, the word is pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable so that the word follows the rhythm and meter of the poetry. But if the word is in a line of prose, then the word is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable.

But language and pronunciation are always changing in this changing world.  In King Lear the decision was made to pronounce the word “revenue,” regardless of its use in poetry or prose, with the accent on the last syllable. Does it change the meaning of the word? No. Do most people (not purists) notice? Probably not. Does it make understanding the language clearer? Probably.  Language is always in flux. Purists, please deal with it.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Plays until Oct. 29.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes. (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rodger Barton June 12, 2023 at 9:16 pm

I played Edgar in Ustinov’s Lear and he got a lot of legitimate laughs with his growing senility. There are always great laughs hidden within the antithesis of Shakespeare’s darkness – he was addicted to antithesis. His comedies, at their best, are crammed with pain.

Michael Langham once said about playing Hamlet, “The text should be fresh-minted, white hot off the brain.”

Nicholas Pennel once told a group of young actors that when meeting new verse- text, write it around the walls of a room using no capitals and no punctuation. Find out what the words mean first – and Nicky was our best verse speaker, not as exciting as Brian Bedford or nuanced as Maggie Smith, but just as clear. Forget all the rules and learn to think Shakespeare, learn to invent him.


2 Lynn June 13, 2023 at 9:26 am

Dear Mr. Barton, All great points, and exemplified by your wise examples, all of whom I have seen including your Edgar. But you do know, that is not what I am saying in my review about the inadvertent humour, you sly man, you! Hope you are well.

Best, Lynn Slotkin