Jamie Portman at the Stratford Festival: Stratford Mounts a Harrowing King Lear.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Calme Fiore as King Lear. Photo: David Hou.

STRATFORD, Ont. — It’s one of the most horrendous scenes in dramatic literature — perhaps the most appalling Shakespeare ever wrote.

So if you know King Lear, you know you have to brace yourself for the sequence where those who have become his adversaries blind the Earl of Gloucester.

The Stratford Festival’s new production is merciless when the moment arrives. As the horror proceeds, it’s as though the participants are seized by an uncontrollable frenzy. There’s a whimpering Scott Wentworth as the wounded Gloucester who, having already lost one eye, is crawling pathetically away from his tormenters. And there’s the excellent Mike Shara, a demonically driven Duke of Cornwall, pouncing on him to complete the job.   Meanwhile, looking on, we have Liisa Repo-Martell’s Regan whose fascinated revulsion seems fixed in amber.

In Antoni Cimolino’s production, the scene has an emotional intimacy that makes what’s happening all the more unsettling. These are people who have known each other in better, more settled lives. But a vicious canker has taken over their world. What unleashed its poison?
The answer, of course, is found at the very beginning of the play when Colm Feore’s aging Lear totters onto the Festival Theatre stage and proceeds to open the gates of hell with his cockeyed plan to portion his kingdom among daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Gaunt, wispy-bearded, voice sometimes quavering, his body language at times uncertain, this Lear may seem a relic, but his vanity and sense of entitlement still burn within him, even though even his aura of decisiveness soon reveals itself as an old man’s terrible foolishness.

We seem to be spectators at a painful domestic drama as Lear announces his plans, and then waits confidently to have his ego stroked by the three daughters who are receiving his beneficence. Goneril and Regan are ready with their honeyed words of meaningless flattery but not his youngest and dearest daughter Cordelia. When she offers him nothing but the honesty of her love and he, first in disbelief, responds that nothing will come of nothing, and then, in uncontrollable anger, unleashes a torrent of verbal abuse, the dye of the play is cast. Cordelia is disinherited and Lear’s loyal lieutenant, the Duke of Kent, banished for having the temerity to defend her. And that way lies chaos.
It’s a powerful opening, almost claustrophobic in its intensity as it plays out on the confines of the Festival Theatre’s famous stage. Yet again, we’re struck by its intimacy. This is not happening at some sort of huge ceremonial gathering. It is not a public event. No huge banners are being unfurled. The austerity of Eo Sharp’s design hovers.
The fact that civil war is being unleashed doesn’t seem of much consequence in this production. It’s there, throbbing ominously in the background, and sometimes it’s forced onto centre stage, but again it’s the more immediate experiences of the key characters, along with those seething sub-plots of personal betrayal, that keep seizing our attention.
When the famous storm scene comes it’s a humdinger (even though its placement in this production at the top of Act Two seems questionable.) At this point a maddened Lear seems terribly alone, having lost his retainers and having been banished from the homes of both daughters who can no longer stand having him around. Thomas Ryder Payne’s soundscape goes into ferocious overtime with its eruptions of thunder and lightning and shrieking wind — and there’s Lear in the middle of it, shrieking futilely at the elements. Lear has entered a maelstrom — but really, given the blackness in which lighting designer Michael Walton has engulfed him, he could already be entombed.
In offering such an intimate and contained vision of the play, Cimolino also brings into deeper focus one of its most unsettling themes: the inhabitants of this little world have indeed become playthings of the deity. Or as Scott Wentworth’s blinded Gloucester puts it: “As to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
Wentworth’s portrayal, so diamond-sharp in its anguish and growing self-knowledge, is one of the highlights of this production. And this fine actor also complements Feore with memorable empathy in that stunning scene when Lear, his lucidity flickering on and off like a bad light connection, and the ravaged Gloucester finally meet again at Dover.
Colm Feore is a superb actor who applies his formidable intellect to whatever he does. And the challenge for him has always been to conceal its presence when he’s etching a characterization. So King Lear is a particular triumph, with the great speeches sounding freshly minted and Feore himself displaying an emotional savagery which can be frightening — witness the perversity of his vicious verbal assault on Goneril, an assault that threatens to turn physical — and an emotional vulnerability that can be pitiable. This is an unpleasant old man, yet when he whispers his fears that he is going mad, you care. Feore must offer us a fragmented mind, in which growing madness vies with flickers of lucidity. Ultimately it is a performance of tear-stained majesty.
Some exceptional actors share the stage with Feore. Wentworth, of course, but also Stephen Ouimette, a wraith-like creature of shreds and patches, in his wrenching performance as Lear’s Fool. Evan Buliung is having a second run at the role of Gloucester’s betrayed son Edgar who feigns madness in order to escape his enemies, and his multi-faceted performance, so unsettling yet so stirring, has a conviction not always apparent when he did it back in 2002.
Jonathan Goad offers a serviceable although somewhat undercooked Kent. Brad Hodder is perhaps too much the bleakly scheming bureaucrat as Edgar’s villainous brother. As the two sisters driven to awful behavior by their father’s conduct, Maev Beaty could be less mannered as Goneril, but Liisa Repo-Martell’s Regan is more interesting — a spoiled pouting child whom you could easily imagine pulling wings off flies.
Cimolino is a director who can convey tenderness on stage beautifully when he has receptive actors. Feore is powerfully affecting in that scene when he and his estranged daughter, Cordelia meet again — a scene where he at first fails to know her and then does. And Sara Farb’s Cordelia abandons the somewhat starchy earnestness of her earlier scenes to respond with an appealing warmth and spontaneity. So reconciliation and redemption do seem a possibility — but only for the moment. Still to come is that final appearance of a howling Lear reappearing with the body of his murdered daughter in his arms. Other centuries saw Lear done with happy endings, but no more. There’s an icicle at the heart of this play and Cimolino and his colleagues don’t flinch from it.
(King Lear continues until Oct. 10. Ticket information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)

    James Portman

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