Saturday, July 28, 2007

King Lear (review)

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

- King Lear

I've seen a lot of productions of King Lear, including ones starring Peter Ustinov and Christopher Plummer. I love the play, but the play usually doesn't make complete sense to me. Edgar's comments while pretending to be a mad hermit named Tom usually rankle: he seems too mad, and what he says seems out of whack. The motivations of the elder sisters to turn on their father generally don't quite work for me. The behavior of Gloucester seems irrational and stupid. Productions of Lear usually focus on the tour-de-force performance of whoever is playing Lear. Even more than Hamlet, Lear is generally all about the star.

In this year's Stratford Ontario production, the star is also the director, and through subtle yet masterful direction Brian Bedford makes sense of every line of dialogue and every character. His cast helps. With the slight exception of Sarah Topham as Cordelia, every speaking role is a brilliant Shakespearean performance. My favorites are Scott Wentworth and Peter Donaldson as Gloucester and Kent, but no less are the star turns of Wenna Shaw and Wendy Robie as Goneril and Regan (chillingly evil), Bernard Hopkins as the fool, and the rest of the cast.

(Topham isn't bad. She has a naturalistic style of acting that doesn't show up too well against all the Shakespeareans.)

Then there's Bedford's Lear. I have been a Bedford fan for 35 years and have seen him in dozens of plays, but I've never seen him do something like this. He starts as a strong, forceful king and diminishes into a tiny skinny old man (who nevertheless is able to carry the lifeless body of his daughter). He moves from someone who is overly hot-headed (his fool says, "If a man's brains were in his heels, were't not in danger of chilblains?") to someone who is mad, to someone who is mad with grief. His performance is achingly compelling and yet never goes over the top.

This is a brilliant Lear. Stratford is not doing well this year, and they're selling off tickets for many performances for half price (all are half price if you get rush seats two hours before the performance). The Festival Theater was about 80% full this afternoon (a Saturday).

(Note on the quote above: There are scholarly arguments about whether Shakespeare was a Catholic or Protestant, but doesn't it sound from the text like Shakespeare wasn't a Christian at all? His deities sound more like the Greek gods - certainly not monotheistic.)


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