Chet Greason email@example.com
Is King Lear a play about nothing? The program that accompanies the Stratford Festival’s 2014 production implies it is. Certain parallels could be made between Lear and Seinfeld, the popular 90s sitcom that was “a show about nothing.”
The cast of Lear is made up of characters who are largely materialistic, narcissistic, callous, and petty, much like the cast of Seinfeld; and while Seinfeld touted its nothingness as a stripped-down brand of humour that reduced the sitcom archetype to a character-driven comedy of errors, Lear’s nothingness sees the stripping down of the human monster itself, laying bare what lies beneath the various titles, authorities, and functions we drape ourselves in.
This theme of nothingness is exemplified by the stark stage of Antoni Cimolino’s production. Set pieces are used on an as-needed basis: a bed here, a candelabra there… The only exception is dry ice, which is used in such abundance during the iconic storm scene you wonder whether they left any CO2 for the rest of us. (The thunder and lightning effects during that scene are truly incredible.)
Given this lack of distracting set pieces, the only means left to impress the themes of Lear upon the audience are the words of the bard and the unique characterizations of the actors themselves (as well as their costumes which, done in Jacobean style, do the trick nicely.)
These unique characterizations result in a play that is both fresh and traditional. We see re-interpretations of classic characters that, for many of us, are altogether new: A sympathetic Goneril (Maev Beaty); a lecherous Edgar (Evan Buliung); or a clownish Kent (Jonathan Goad).
Typically played as a sneering and greedy villain, Beaty’s Goneril instead comes off as a homemaker who likes her abode kept just so. She is visibly shaken when Lear goes too far, flying into a rage after she chastises him over his unruly entourage. Her reaction gives us a tangible motive for her more deceitful actions later in the play.
Likewise, there’s more than simple blood jealousy behind Edmund’s malicious choices. Brad Hodder plays the bastard as a prim and somewhat nerdy would-be nobleman. Juxtaposed with him is his trueborn brother Edgar, who’s first appearance sees him drunk and getting frisky with a chamber maid. This gives credence to Edmund’s asking “Why bastard? Wherefore base?”
Meanwhile, Edgar’s transformation into Poor Tom seems less a guise than a legit foray off the rocks. His stumble into the storm, and subsequent reemergence into the sun as a clear-thinker, comes off as one of the world’s weirder hangovers.
Goad adds his trademark swagger to Kent, making the noble nobleman a more comic character. His choice in affecting a Texan drawl out the side of his mouth once disguised seems an odd and slightly distracting choice given Cimolino’s choice in setting the production in Elizabethan England. Still, you realize Kent has a handful of choice lines seemingly made to be grunted like a cattle rustler (ie. “Some time I shall sleep out, the rest I’ll whistle.”)
Stephen Ouimette as the fool is less understated then Bernard Hopkins was in the Festival’s last Lear (2007). However, both fools seemed similarly exhausted- shuffling and whimpering their way through the scenes. That said, Ouimette’s fool has an underlying spark to him that hints at a former joviality that may have been snuffed out with Lear’s banishment of Cordelia. It appears this fool took it personally. Although he seems cross with Lear, the fool still harbors a deep affection for the king. Ouimette’s shuffle, his baggy coat, his wild hair, and his impish grin somehow evokes a talking Harpo Marx.
Mike Shara’s Cornwall is a man on the edge. In another odd moment of historical revisionism, he appears to snort cocaine prior to the harrowing eye-gouging scene; either that or snuff is far more potent than I was originally led to believe. The scene, with Gloucester tied to a chair and a demonic Cornwall fingering the offending blade, reminded this reviewer of the famous ear-cutting scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
The rest of the cast do what is needed of them. Scott Wentworth, who also played Gloucester in 2007, is, as per usual, mesmerizing. Thomas Olajide plays servant Oswald as a simpering and rightly-detestable ponce. Liisa Repo-Martell’s Regan and Sara Farb’s Cordelia drift to the background and even seem a little stiff, largely drowned out by the bombastic performances happening around them. Perhaps their nuances will surface in subsequent viewings?
That leaves Colm Feore’s titular monarch. In an interview with the Stratford Gazette for Sideroads Magazine (look for it in late June), Feore mentions how he studied his 85-year-old father in preparation for the role in order to learn how the elderly move, and how sudden bouts of action come at a physical cost to be recouped later on. You can see this in Feore’s Lear; how he slowly stiffens throughout the play as his age is forcibly thrust upon him by his daughters. A striding and booted horseman riding with raucous knights becomes a fluid and barefoot hippie, eventually denigrating into a frail and shaking form. He thunders and rails, he wanders and pontificates, he weeps and sobs; yet at no point does it ever seem like there are multiple Lears beneath Feore’s robes. It’s all one man, on a steady downward spiral of self-pity, self-discovery, and grief.
However, these moments of rage, madness, and frailty are balanced with instances of childlike energy. He can barely contain his glee when his fool agrees to appear. Giggling, he leads Cordelia’s men a merry chase. His tantrums when faced with his daughters’ impertinence rivals that of the most spoiled of toddlers.
In this sense, Lear is as much a play about adults acting like children as it is about growing old. The offspring talk to their parent in the same tones they may use to address their own small children. The parents react to the inherent lack of respect ingrained in this role reversal; they lash out, become “difficult,” they challenge the authority usurped by the whelps that, only short years ago, stood quaking in the wrath of the elder.
It’s a familiar scene played out far too often in the hallways of the modern nursing home; and it’s evoked sadly and thoughtfully in this production.