Reviewed by Rob Ormsby
The Stratford Festival’s King Lear takes a timeworn kick at the emotional-realist / Shakespeare-plus relevance can. Director Antoni Cimolino presses his actors to convey every last one of their emotions as plainly as possible and encourages us to see the purportedly timeless significance of the play’s social critiques by adding a clutch of homeless characters who occasionally interact silently with those in the named roles. This latter device is less overtly topical than the numerous tricks Chris Abraham plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the same stage and with many of the same actors, and the overall results of Cimolino’s choices are less theatrically inventive than those in Dream.
The director appears to want Shakespeare’s language to carry the meaning in this production. The stage is bare, except for props like candelabras, Lear’s throne and map, a table, a chair for Gloucester’s binding and blinding, and an artificial fire at which the homeless warm themselves. The costumes—doublets, breeches, gowns, hats, footwear—are all approximately Jacobean. Cimolino explains in his director’s note that Shakespeare set Lear in the distant past because its biting political criticism would have landed the playwright in prison but that in 2014 the early modern setting “supports the language of a time past, yet points to the birth of the modern age and the world we live in now.” In fact, the scenography calls to mind both the recent past in its resemblance to staid Stratford shows broadcast on television and the present King John at the Tom Patterson Theatre, minus that show’s veneer of “Original Practices” and its insistent metatheatricality.
If Cimolino wishes to rely on the speech to do the work, he must help his actors find greater vocal variety. Nowhere does the dialogue sound more like one damned line after another than in Colm Feore’s delivery of Lear’s lines. He purposefully shifts gears to “furious” when angry, switches to “insane” when mad, and changes to “anguish” when in despair. Whatever the speech’s prevailing feeling, he keeps the emotional throttle set at precisely the same position from start to finish, offering few pregnant pauses or memorably eccentric readings, and flattening out the psychological peaks and toughs. Worse, when Feore has to make Lear’s climactic storm speech immediately after the intermission, designers Michael Walton (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound) whip up a tempest that virtually drowns the actor’s speech in thunder and distracts with strobe lightning, to say nothing of the artificial fog that obscures his face at times. Feore is a superb actor perfectly capable of subtle psychological shifts. Why that talent is not put to better use in a production that seems to try to generate empathy is a mystery to me.
Lear’s daughters are cut from the same safely respectable cloth as their father. Maev Beaty’s Goneril and Liisa Repo-Martell’s Regan requite the paternal desire for flattery, while Sara Farb’s Cordelia stands firmly upon the circumscribed specifics of her duty to him. The first two women are concerned about Lear’s petulance, they tire of him, are upset by his anger, fall in love with Edmund and turn on each other. Cordelia is kind to Lear when she bravely returns to save him. The performances are simply that plain; the elder sisters are not particularly fulsome or crafty in the opening ceremony and reveal something only slightly warmer than lukewarm affection for Edmund. As with Feore, it is particularly hard to understand why an actor of Repo-Martell’s calibre performs as she does. Perhaps Cimolino wants to diminish the traditional villainy ascribed to Goneril and Regan, but if he is after emotional realism—and perhaps I misunderstand just what he is after—there needs to be a basic psychological set-up to get to the payoff.
Stephen Ouimette’s Fool and Scott Wentworth’s Gloucester fare better. Ouimitte’s silences are heavy with meaning, each pause of his expertly paced warnings to his master after the division of the kingdom a gap in the language representing the abyss that lies before the king. His Fool’s farcical-tragical playing with Lear is far more interesting than the King’s folly, which makes us keenly feel Ouimette’s loss after the storm episodes. Wentworth is, as always, utterly reliable and comfortable with the task that has been set him. He communicates the depths of Gloucester’s sense of betrayal and the pain he suffers physically and mentally, largely because he is not compelled to speed through his lines monotonically.
A few others would benefit from a production that does not bind them quite so tightly. Brad Hodder’s Edmund is a wholly credible
whip-smart dissembler ready to make use of whatever tools come to hand. Yet he never gets the chance to seduce us directly when wallowing in his own baseness because, from my perspective, the fourth wall seems to be firmly in place. The English husbands, too, should be allowed more freedom to create a sense of subtlety once their divergent characters emerge in the aftermath of Lear’s departure for the stormy heath. Were Mike Shara to slip a velvet glove of quiet menace over the iron fist of violence that he uses too quickly when interrogating Gloucester, he could generate a far more terrifying atmosphere than he manages to do in the scene. Similarly, Michael Blake’s Albany might be given more time when unfolding to Goneril his knowledge of her treachery in order to let the contempt he feels for his deceitful wife sink in fully.
This Lear projects a Kent-like desire to serve an idea of the text with plain honesty, if not actual bluntness. Certainly, it does not affect a saucy roughness towards Shakespeare, which is unfortunate. Paying greater attention to the specific theatrical needs of the here and now rather concerning himself with a generalized belief in the supposedly prophetic (i.e., transhistorically relevant) playwright might have led Cimolino to more of the profound emotional connections he wishes to portray onstage and that he tries to generate between actors and spectators. Obeying authority is one thing when devising publicity material but when it comes to actual performance, why not take a risk and speak what you feel, even if the speech has a rough edge?