Review: King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Stratford Festival of Canada presents King Lear by William Shakespeare

Artistic Director / RICHARD MONET

Director / BRIAN BEDFORD

Costume Designer / ANN CURTIS
Set Consultant / DESMOND HEELEY
Lighting Designer / MICHAEL J. WHITFIELD
Composer / DON HORSBURGH
Fight Director / JOHN STEAD
Sound Designer / JIM NEIL
Movement / SHONA MORRIS

The cast
Curan / SEAN ARBUCKLE
King Lear / BRIAN BEDFORD
Duke of Cornwall / WAYNE BEST
Cordelia’s Gentleman / KEITH DINICOL
Earl of Kent / PETER DONALDSON
Duke of Albany / GRAHAM HARLEY
Fool / BERNARD HOPKINS
Old Man / JOHN INNES
Edmund / DION JOHNSTONE
Oswald / RON KENNELL
King of France / TIM MacDONALD
Edgar / GARETH POTTER
Regan / WENDY ROBIE
Goneril / WENNA SHAW
Cordelia / SARA TOPHAM
Earl of Gloucester / SCOTT WENTWORTH

Also Appearing:
PAUL AMOS, JONATHAN ELLUL, MICHELLE GIROUX (Understudy), KIM HORSMAN, JACOB JAMES, SOPHIA KOLINAS, BRIAN McKAY, JAMIE McKNIGHT, PAUL NOLAN, JAMIE ROBINSON, ROGER SHANK, SEVERN THOMPSON (Understudy)

Stage Manager / MICHAEL HART
Assistant Stage Managers / RENATE HANSON, ZEPH WILLIAMS
Apprentice Stage Manager / CRYSTAL SKINNER
Production Assistant / KRISTOPHER WEBER
Production Stage Manager / MAGGIE PALMER

Production viewed: September 5, 2007 2 pm

I saw The Stratford Festival’s previous production of King Lear, with Christopher Plummer as Lear, and I must comment that the two productions had almost nothing in common except the script (more or less) and the stage. Plummer so far outsoared the rest of the cast that they were incidental; the current season’s Lear was remarkable for the scenes in which Lear was not on stage.

Brian Bedford should not have taken Lear on; he is not a Lear–at least not under his own direction; his long career is distinguished by a multitude of remarkably sensitive performances, which should not have been concluded by this (he retires this year). His view of Lear is more unidimensional than I would have believed possible. With few exceptions, Bedford ranted his lines to such an extent that his fellow actors had to change vocal attack when he was on stage. He played Lear with virtually no finesse: Lear was a loud, relentlessly insensitive, whining old guy. Had it not been for the fact that I intended to review the production, and the fact that I appreciated the non-Lear scenes, I would have left at the intermission.

There were many performances that redeemed the production, and those were given by most of the rest of the cast.

Peter Donaldson’s Kent was an interesting, sane vocal contrast to Bedford’s Lear; one could feel the stage relaxing when he was present. Gareth Potter’s Edgar was dynamic, inventive and emotionally evocative. Scott Wentworth’s Gloucester was what Bedford’s Lear was not: sensitive, sympathetic, moving. Dion Johnstone’s Edmund was suitably arrogant, wily, evil and affective. Lear’s daughters, played by Wenna Shaw as Goneril, Wendy Robie as Regan and Sara Topham as Cordelia, were suitably nuanced, mired as they were in the old man’s machinations, although Robie appeared to be a bit lost at first (appropriate as that may be for the character, she seemed ill at ease in this production, and rightly so, opposite Bedford’s over the top approach.) Finally, Bernard Hopkin’s Fool was intriguingly and inventively played as a witty outspoken bureaucrat, virtually Lear’s peer, impatient with the demented old king’s errors.

Costumes were a strange mixture of Elizabethan and mythological, as Lear and Cordelia were transformed during the battle from very stylish battledress (her) and very elegant pristine white brocade gown (him) to woefully bedraggled earthen, dragged-in-the-mud shifts (both), which one might cheerfully have identified backstage as the pathos rags.

The lighting and fog effects for the storm were strange overkill; combined with thunder and wind sound effects that overwhelmed voices so that very few of the lines during that scene were intelligible to human audience ear, one was left to think “okay, here’s what technology can do–but why?” Shakespeare’s stage effects were a snapped sheet for thunder and dried peas or such for rain, used to supplement some of the most wonderful stormy words ever put together for performance–why use all this technical stuff when the words don’t need it?

Speaking of words, there were some very poignant words left out: Lear’s ruminations about the homeless come to mind–when were they ever more apropos? And Poor Tom’s helpless rantings and–Lear is a magnificent simmered stew, a play of words meant to be savored, and enjoyed in the details of all its fatal errors and losses; not hasty takeout to be chopped, boiled and dismissed.

King Lear begins with a fatal error made by a senile old man at the end of a long and distinguished reign; like the play, so the production: a disappointing concoction, brewed in the error of making a wonderful and distinguished actor his own director.

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wordcurrents/ Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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