It takes a lot of courage to put on King Lear. The artistic, material and financial demands can be prohibitive. You need an extraordinary actor who can play Lear and an acting company that can handle the Shakespearean language and a director and artistic crew to put it all together. Good luck.
Soulpepper Theatre under Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha seems to have found all the requisite elements and has produced a stunning and thunderous King Lear.
The star of the production is without a doubt Tom McCamus as Lear. He has a booming voice that takes Lear from his expression of hatred of his daughters and the unbelievable curses he heaps on them, to his fury in general, to his mad scene in the heath to the recalcitrant human being at the end. We see a selfish, arrogant and bombastic king, a man betrayed by his daughters who loses his sanity and an actor who must reach the heights of performance to meet those demands. Lear may well be McCamus’s defining performance. He has been on the stage for some forty years and in this King Lear, he may have hit the pinnacle.
King Lear has 25 characters and director Kim Collier uses only sixteen actors to represent them. This works to a large extent but the entire cast except two are listed as playing a name role “& others.” McCamus as Lear and Virgilia Griffith as Goneril are the exceptions.
The acting standards are generally high. Damien Atkins as Edgar, the decent older son of Gloucester and Jonathan Young as Edmund, the evil bastard son. Atkins and Young excel in their roles Young has to become Poor Tom, the almost naked beggar in the scene on the heath and accompany his blinded father to the cliffs of Dover all the while hiding his true identity. No mean task.
Soulpepper stalwart Oliver Dennis does a fine job as Gloucester and appears in minor roles where he is recognizable. Griffith as Goneril and Vanessa Sears as Regan give us all the hypocrisy, ambitions and evil one can take in one evening. Their husbands Cornwall (Philip Riccio) and Albany (Jordan Pettle) are almost as evil but the latter does find his humanity in the vortex of evil and torture.
Sheldon Elter’s Kent is a tough-looking bruiser and a faithful servant to Lear to the end and we sympathize with the character who in the final scene leaves to face his mortality.
The Fool is an important character in King Lear because he is the king’s jester, speaks truth to power and provides a few laughs. Collier has assigned the role to Nancy Palk, a star of Solupepper. This is a modern dress production and attiring Palk like a jester may not do. She is dressed in ordinary clothes and speaks as if she were just an ordinary individual in the play with some cutting remarks. Unfortunately, she comes out as a non-entity and whatever reason Collier had for presenting the Fool as such, escapes me.
The acting was as I said, was of high quality generally but most of the actors had difficulty handling the play’s often tortuous language and iambic pentameters.
I described this as a thunderous production and that holds true from the booming way of speaking of McCamus and other characters, the thunder and lightning of the heath scene and the noise of battle. Footlights at the rear of the stage flash on and off and the stereo system of the Young Centre makes the theatre feel like a war zone.
The set by Ken Mackenzie was Spartan and efficient. In the opening scene we had the royal throne and a long table and chairs for the division of the kingdom. Two large arches were moved around the stage to indicate palaces and the rest was handled with lighting effects by Lighting Designer Kimberly Purtell.
For the final scene, Collier had the bodies of Goneril and Regan on stage, on each side of the regal throne. A nice touch.
We do not get enough opportunities to see outstanding productions of King Lear and for good reason. But when we do get the opportunity, we should see them.
King Lear by William Shakespeare continues until October 1, 2022, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca.