With pomp and circumstance (bagpipes, trumpets, a red carpet and a fashion show by elite and VIPs), the Stratford Festival launched its 2023 season with a production of King Lear. It is a great play by any measuring stick, and it received the attention it deserves.
Every director is expected to put his/her imprimatur on every production and Kimberley Rampersad has done the same for this staging. The production has many virtues and some aspects that may be considered idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric and at times even quirky. This is an understated King Lear with some flashes. It is also the funniest King Lear that I have ever seen. Lear himself displays a sense of humour and it works.
Many of the aspects of a King Lear production that, for better or for worse, we are accustomed to seeing are missing. That is not necessarily a flaw as we do not want or expect productions to reproduce one another. The emotional wavelength that Rampersad imposes is relatively even. Lear’s curses are unforgettable at any wavelength but Rampersad has them delivered in a non-fulminating tone of voice. The despicable conduct of Goneril and Regan does not display the depth of evil and hatred that is possible in a different approach to the play.
The storm scene is low-key and when Lear cries “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow you cataracts and hurricanes; spout till you have drenched our steeples and drowned their weathercocks” Paul Gross’s intonation does not do justice to the words.
When Lear enters carrying Ophelia and screeches 'Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones,/ Had I your tongues, and eyes, I'd use them so,/ That Heav'ns vault should crack” he is intoning words of immeasurable power. He would open heaven at the injustice he is witnessing. Rampersad has Gross say the lines with relatively little impact.
One of the keys to any production of Lear is the actor who will play the King and in this case the role is taken over by Paul Gross. He has white hair and a white beard, and an athletic body. In the beginning he gives no hint of a man who needs to shake all cares from his age and crawl towards death. He is in command of his senses and of the situation and shows his sense of humour. That will change quickly when he demands ritual expression of love from his daughters and lacks the judgment to discern the difference between the mendacity and hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan and misconstrues disastrously his Cordelia’s honesty and true love.
Gross is effective within the parameters set by the director, and we see his humanity and stupidity, his rage and cruelty until he goes mad and subsequently repents. It is a nuanced performance on its own but confined to understating the enormity of his fate as illustrated by his fulminations and the drama of the scene on the heath.
The same may be said of the performances of Shannon Taylor as Goneril and Dejah Dixon-Green as Regan. They are the epitome of filial ingratitude, ambition and evil. Regan is in fact downright gleefully sadistic, but Rampersad’s understated approach does not quite convince us of their depravity. Tara Sky as Cordelia is milquetoast.
Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester is the most villainous character in the play and Michael Blake is superb in the role. Edmund knows that he is putting on a performance as a villain and a suitor to the two evil sisters and he is enjoying it. In this case understatement is the right approach and it works.
Andre Sill gives an equally commendable performance as Edgar, the good son of Gloucester, who pretends to be a beggar in order to help Lear and his blinded father. When he first enters the stage during Edmund’s soliloquy, he admits that he is violent and lecherous. Edgar come in on cue, and Edmund uses a theatrical metaphor that “he comes like the catastrophe of the old comedy.” Catastrophe means conclusion and was a way of wrapping up a play. But Rampersad has Edgar enter wearing a velvet cape and accompanied by two lovely young women. The implication for me was that Edgar is a playboy for which there is no hint in the play. Why does Rampersad create even momentarily an impression that is not sustainable or sustained in the play?
It is worth remarking that the fight between Edmund and Edgar is extremely effective. It starts out surprisingly with one of the combatants brandishing a sword and the other wielding an axe and a shield. Fight Director Geoff Scovell does superlative work.
Anthony Santiago is excellent as the decent Earl of Gloucester whose eyes are gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall and Regan. The horrible event is done expeditiously, and we should be grateful for that. But what are those things that fly out and the pieces that land on the stage?
Gordon Patrick White, dressed in almost conventional clothes, plays an understated Fool. He is humorous and effective as Lear’s alter ego or perhaps the common sense that Lear so woefully lacks.
The costumes by Michelle Bohn indicate another era, maybe a long time ago (no guns) maybe not that far in the past if we go by the attire of the women. Goneril wears slacks, Regan wears a hideous yellow dress and brown tights. Some of the men’s costumes could be Victorian or choose-your-era.
These are the virtues and idiosyncrasies or quirks if you prefer of the current production. It is unquestionably worth seeing.
King Lear by William Shakespeare opened on May 30, 2023, and will continue until October 29, 2023, at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario www.stratfordfestival.ca