Stage Door Review
Wednesday, May 31, 2023
by William Shakespeare, directed by Kimberley Rampersad
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 30-October 29, 2023
Fool: “Then shall the realm of Albion / Come to great confusion”
Unless you happen to be a particularly rabid fan of actor Paul Gross, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should see the Stratford Festival’s latest production of King Lear. It is poorly acted, directed and designed. Even normally reliable actors do not do well in their roles. One often reads that King Lear is considered Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, but you would never guess that was the case after such a superficial and often wrong-headed traversal of the text now playing at the Festival Theatre.
Lear does not stand or fall on the performance of the title character, though that obviously is key. Lear is so cosmic in scope that it requires a director who can make us see how all of the many events in the play are related to Lear’s fall into and recovery from madness.
In Kimberley Rampersad the play did not have that director. Rampersad is the Associate Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival where she both acts and directs. King Lear is the first Shakespeare she has directed and it is also her first time directing on the Festival Stage. In the normal course of events, directors work their way up to directing Lear, as Brian Bedford did and as Kenneth Branagh is doing. They don’t begin with it. The Festival Stage is a notoriously difficult stage for directors to master since it is so unlike any other stage on the continent.
Given these two major challenges it is surprising that Rampersad would even agree to the invitation to direct Lear at Stratford. But beyond that, Rampersad explains in her Director’s Note that circumstances forced her to begin rehearsals of the play without preparation. The best thing to have done in that situation would have been to withdraw from the production and let the Festival find a director who already had experience with the play.
As a result, the play has no directorial focus and the actors seem to have been left to fend for themselves. The public’s main interest in the production is actor Paul Gross, who is making his second ever appearance at Stratford after having played the title role in Hamlet in 2000. Just as Rampersad has no particular take on the play, Gross has no particular take on his character. Lear keeps saying he is old, but 64-year-old Gross does nothing whatever in gesture or behaviour to suggest Lear is the four score he says he is. Rather, Gross shows Lear to be quite lively and fit.
When Lear cries out, “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! / Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow”, Gross clutches at his chest as if he had heartburn not growing hysteria. When Gross wishes to show Lear as mad, he hits the sides of his head with the palms of his hands. Otherwise, he delivers his lines no differently that when Lear is sane.
One of Gross’s line readings near the very beginning dooms his performance to failure for nearly the whole play. Lear says that he is dividing the cares of his kingdom, “Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburthen’d crawl toward death”. Gross stretches out the word “death” as if it were a bogeyman only foolish people would fear. From this point on, and after other such line readings, it is impossible for us to take seriously anything Gross’s Lear says. This makes Lear’s lines denouncing Cordelia, then Goneril then Regan come across as so much bluster. Sad to say, these speeches which should make Lear first seem frightening and then seem pathetic, only generate laughter as if Lear himself did not take seriously what he is saying.
With Lear’s character so severely undermined both when he is sane and when he is “mad”, it is surprising that Gross is able to lend some dignity to the character after Lear and Cordelia have been captured by the enemy. Here Gross speaks in a kind, natural voice and is finally able to draw some sympathy from us for this aged, cruelly wronged man. Saving some convincing acting for the very end, of course, is too late to rescue everything Gross has already thrown away.
All three of Lear’s daughters are poorly acted. The biggest surprise is Shannon Taylor as Goneril. Taylor has given many finely nuanced performances in the past – last year as Yelena in Uncle Vanya for Crow’s Theatre and in 2016 as Viola in Shakespeare in Love at Stratford. Here Taylor and Déjah Dixon-Green as Regan find it impossible to convey their characters’ change from justified anger to pure evil. In the play their “evil” comes off as the adolescent spitefulness of mean girls in high school. Rampersad claims in her Note that the two are fighting against the patriarchy. If that is so, why then do both Goneril and Regan have affairs with Edmund, why does Goneril kill Regan to win Edmund for herself and why do both elder sisters fight their younger sister for control of England?
Tara Sky’s Cordelia is a cipher. Sky speaks in uninflected tones and imbues her lines with less passion than a newsreader reading a teleprompter.
As Gloucester, Anthony Santiago is very weak. Even though he was powerful and magnetic in Death and the King’s Horseman at Stratford last year, here he seems unable to make sense of Shakespearean verse. Gloucester’s character arc is mean to parallel Lear’s, but here Santiago’s Gloucester remains at the same level of ineffectualness from beginning to end.
Stratford has cast two of its finest actors as Gloucester’s sons – Michael Blake as Edmund and André Sills as Edgar. Left to their own devices by an unprepared director, both ruin their roles in different ways. Blake’s approach is to play Edmund as if he were another Richard III. It is true that the roles are similar. Both speak directly to the audience and both satirize the other characters. The downside of this approach to Edmund in Lear is that it garners laughter rather than fear. This laughter combined with Gross’s Lear’s comic bluster have the unfortunate effect of making this, as far as the opening night audience was concerned, the most amusing Lear they had ever seen. Laughter, of course, dissipates tension and with laughter being generated in both the main plot and the subplot, this Lear had the least buildup in tension in any Lear I have ever seen.
Sills, normally an expert speaker of verse, here speaks Edgar’s lines in such a choppy fashion that the sense is often lost. As Poor Tom, Sills goes so far over the top that his screeching voice also makes Tom’s ravings hard to decipher. Only the in the Dover scene with Gloucester at the end does Sills return to the kind of confidence in performance and clarity of speech we have grown accustomed to from him.
David W. Keeley is a good choice for the Earl of Kent, but he tends to speak Shakespeare’s verse like prose and to speak so quickly that his words don’t have the impact they should. This is most noticeable in Kent’s heaping of insults on Oswald that he speaks so rapidly we can’t enjoy the sheer inventiveness of his invective.
Austin Eckert plays the Duke of Albany as if the Duke were the milksop his wife Goneril thinks he is. The point of Albany is that of the two “evil” couples, the Albanys and the Cornwalls, the Duke of Cornwall is the only one who recognizes the turn toward evil of his wife, sister-in-law and brother-in-law and tries to resist it. Albany is no wimp but a man strong enough to do good in a bad world.
Only three actors show that they understand the play and the role of the characters in it. Foremost among these is Gordon Patrick White as the Fool, who, unlike Shakespeare’s other fools, acts not so much as an entertainer but as Lear’s conscience. White with a seemingly flippant tone harps upon Lear’s folly with the clear goal of forcing the King to admit his terrible error in judgement.
Also impressive is Rylan Wilkie as the Duke of Cornwall. One point of the action is that we see how people who are justifiably angry can slide into unjustifiable malice. Wilkie shows us exactly that and he makes the moment when he decides to shut Gloucester out of his own house one of few authentically chilling moments of the production.
Jakob Ehman is excellent in the small part of the King of France. If all the actors could speak verse as clearly and with such purpose and understanding as Ehman does, the level of the whole production would rise substantially.
It is unintentionally fitting that a poorly acted play should have a poorly conceived design. According to the press release for the show, the action is “set in a near-future Britain”. The main sign of this on Judith Bowden’s set are two pairs of sliding doors the rims of which are fitted with LED light strips. Whenever the doors open or close, the blinding strip lights go on and Miquelon Rodriguez plays the sound of huge industrial doors opening or closing. Bowden has also included a pointless square pole, also with an LED light strip, that rises from the stage. Just before Lear’s “Blow winds” speech, it topples over giving Lear a little railing to walk down while he delivers the speech. The toppling is a too-obvious symbol of the collapse of order, but Lear’s walking down the slanting pole seems to make a joke of the symbol.
Michelle Bohn’s costumes are some of the least attractive I’ve ever seen at Stratford. If the action has been moved to “a near-future Britain”, Bohn seems not to have received the memo. Apparently, in the near-future any style goes. The overall look may be medieval, but some characters wear modern work boots and trainers while others wear medieval calf-length boots. For the women Bohn draws on styles ranging from an ancient Greek peplum and circlet crown for Cordelia to a 1920s jacket and bowler hat for the Fool.
Bohn initially starts by colour-coding the characters – black for Lear, blue for Cordelia, red for Goneril and husband and yellow for Regan and husband. By the middle of the play both Lear and Goneril are wearing purple cloaks. It may symbolize that the two are vying for control but it leaves out Regan. By the end Lear is in white and Edmund has a green cloak, the primary colours of the beginning totally forgotten. While Bohn has, for unknown reasons, given Goneril the greatest number of costumes, she has placed Goneril and Cordelia in outfits that are distinctly unbecoming, a fact that should have been obvious during fittings. For all three daughters Bohn has them move from gowns attached to some historical period to gowns of pure fantasy, at one point the capes of Goneril and Regan making them look like superheroes (or super-villains). All this confusion of style simply erodes the seriousness of the drama.
Those who were lucky enough to see William Hutt play Lear in 1988 or 1996 will have seen the best Lear Stratford has ever presented. No one since – not Christopher Plummer in 2002, not Brian Bedford in 2007, not Colm Feore in 2014 – has equalled Hutt’s profound understanding of the character and his ability to communicate that understanding through nuances of voice. Nevertheless, any of Stratford previous 21st century productions of King Lear are vastly preferable to the present Lear currently before the public. No one will ever equal William Hutt, but there are actors like longtime Stratfordian Scott Wentworth, who could play the role with the same understanding as Hutt, as Wentworth proved in February this year in a production with the Toronto company Shakespeare BASH’d.
Photo: Tara Sky as Cordelia, Austin Eckert as Albany, Shannon Taylor as General, Paul Gross as King Lear, Déjah Dixon-Green as Regan and Rylan Wilkie as Cornwall; Paul Gross as King Lear; Michael Blake as Edmund and André Sills as Edgar; Gordon Patrick White as the Fool and Paul Gross as King Lear. © 2023 David Hou.
For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.