After an absence of more than two decades, Paul Gross will return to the Stratford Festival in 2023 to star in King Lear at the Festival Theatre.
The 63-year-old Canadian actor and director last performed at the Ontario theatre company in the title role of Hamlet in 2000, in what was one of the best-attended productions of William Shakespeare in its history.
While Gross has kicked the idea of Lear around with artistic director Antoni Cimolino for a number of years, the actor previously felt too young for the role. But, recently, he decided to not “wait until it was too late.”
“It did kind of occur to me, well, maybe I should do it before I lose my mind, you know?” Gross told The Globe and Mail ahead of Tuesday’s casting announcement.
“Not that I have Alzheimer’s, but, suddenly, I’m at the age where it’s appearing all over the place in people that I know.”
Regardless of his reasons, Gross’s decision to take on King Lear – which will run from April 24 to Oct. 29 – is positive news for Stratford as it continues to rebuild after the complete cancellation of its 2020 season due to the pandemic.
After a short, stock season staged mostly outdoors in 2021, the Shakespeare-plus theatre company relaunched with a slightly reduced repertory season this year – and an attendance goal of 320,000, about two-thirds of the audience it usually attracted before COVID-19 came along.
Ultimately, Cimolino says the company – which staged the final performances of its 2022 season over the weekend – “modestly exceeded” that benchmark. He was particularly encouraged by box-office momentum that started to build in the fall, which he hopes Gross’s Lear will help continue.
The Stratford season in which Gross played Hamlet 23 years ago immediately followed his run as Constable Benton Fraser in the popular television series Due South and was, at the time, a record-breaking one. Its overall attendance was only surpassed once, in 2002 for the company’s 50th anniversary season, which saw the late Christopher Plummer play Lear.
Since then, Gross has shown his rare capacity as a famous-mostly-in-Canada star to draw domestic audiences on other occasions. His Genie-winning movie Passchendaele was the Canadian film with the biggest box-office gross in 2008, one of few years in which a French-language movie did not claim that title. His last major stage performance – in Noel Coward’s Private Lives (alongside Kim Cattrall) at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre in 2011 – set a record for that venue in terms of grosses for a non-musical play.
Though Gross cautions with a laugh that, “I think my popularity has diminished significantly,” he does worry about theatre, where he worked extensively as an actor and playwright before finding fame on screens in the 1990s. “I started going back to the theatre after that break and was kind of startled as to how sparse the audiences are,” he says.
Gross will be directed in King Lear by Kimberley Rampersad, currently the associate artistic director at the Shaw Festival, who says she “especially fell in love” with his work when he starred in TV‘s Slings & Arrows (2003 to 2006).
In that series, which continues to have a cult following internationally in stage circles, Gross played the artistic director of a fictional repertory theatre called the New Burbage Festival that bore more than a little resemblance to the Stratford Festival.
Gross, for his part, became a fan of Rampersad after seeing her work in 2019 at the Shaw Festival, on Bernard Shaw’s epic Man and Superman – which co-starred Martha Burns, whom Gross has been married to since 1988, as the Devil.
The two artists had a couple of meetings to see whether their vision for King Lear aligned – and, as Rampersad puts it, to see if the places where they did not align would provide a “good push and pull.”
“We both just love the beauty and the brokenness of Lear and how tremendous his fall is – what it is to hurt so many people that you love or loved in that descent and how human that story is,” Rampersad says.
In his early 60s, Gross is far from the youngest Lear that the Stratford Festival has seen; Colm Feore was 55 when he played the part in 2014, and while the late Stratford legend William Hutt last played it on stage at age 76, his first Lear was when he was just 41. (Hutt last played the part, in bits, on screen opposite Gross in Slings & Arrows.)
“There’s something magical about an older actor playing it, but a part like Lear is like running a marathon. It requires a kind of stamina and power, which it helps to not be the character’s age,” Cimolino says.
“Paul is all in, give it all,” notes Cimolino, recalling the actor’s “emotionally vulnerable” Hamlet, which would leave him in “complete tears and exhaustion” at the end of a show.
“I am very happy he’s decided to climb this particular Everest and not wait for another 15 years.”