King Lear

William Shakespeare
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario

Colm Feore Credit: Stratford Festival

It is very hard to find good things occurring during these terrible times. However, the enforced time at home, combined with generosity shown by producers and the wonders of modern technology can make life seem much better.

Not too long ago, the only way to enjoy theatrical productions was in real-time at a specific location, now it is possible to see some exceptionally fine work from around the world in the comfort of your living room.

This critic has spent much of the last two months travelling back in time and across the globe, enjoying productions from our own National Theatre and RSC but also the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the Schaubühne in Berlin and now the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

It is painful for a native of the country that reared Shakespeare to report but, judging by Antoni Cimolino’s 2015 production of King Lear, the Canadians seem to have got the hang of the Bard at least as well as many of our own directors.

Rather than following current fashion and imposing his own modern vision on the play, the director has attempted to replicate the original experience, setting this 2½-hour filmed stage performance in Jacobethan times and costumes on Stratford’s bare, bulbous thrust stage.

Visually, the evening is symbolically dark, illuminated at the level of candlelight like an old master painting. This makes the impact of the terrifying storm scene even more compelling.

Cimolino has assembled an excellent cast, none of whom are likely to be familiar to British viewers. From the opening scenes, the superbly humane Colm Feore fully inhabits the title role. This is one of the great Lears, brimming with his own self-importance, thereby alienating his daughters and then succumbing to convincing madness but never losing his hold on the audience.

From those early moments, one can see the love that Sara Farb playing Cordelia and Jonathan Goad as Kent feel for the old man, even as he is banishing them. This is echoed later on in the person of Stephen Ouimette’s Fool, as good as any you are likely to see.

One of the most telling scenes in a production that seems to have been deeply thought through at every move allows us to get under the skin of the normally unsympathetic Goneril played by Maev Beaty and understand the extent to which her father gives his eldest daughter the kind of deep offence that screams for vengeance.

Elsewhere, Scott Wentworth portrays Gloucester as an honourable if gullible man, taken in completely by Brad Hodder’s Edmund, driven to evil by anger at the favour given to his brother Edgar, played by Evan Buliung as a drunken carouser during their first stage meeting, before redemption as Poor Tom.

As with every other production of the play, it is hard to view Gloucester’s punishment by the chilling team of Regan and Cornwall, respectively Liisa Repo-Martell and Mike Shara, hardly helped by the camera’s ability to take us so close to the action.

An exceptionally well-cast evening digs deeply into the souls of all of the significant characters, portraying most as multi-dimensional, even the worthiest showing their flaws, while all but the most deeply flawed demonstrate at least a degree of underlying goodness.

Whether you have never seen King Lear or watched the play on numerous occasions, this production is one of the very best and comes highly recommended. Unfortunately, the free stream has disappeared but it is still available to rent or buy.

For fans of top quality Shakespeare, there is plenty more to enjoy via the Stratford Festival web site.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher