For more than a year now, Colm Feore has been immersed in King Lear, so completely submerged that, when he comes up for air and an interview, lines from characters he isn't even playing begin to flow out his mouth.
Sitting in the Stratford Festival's pied-a-terre in downtown Toronto, explaining how every individual in this Shakespeare tragedy is driven to extremes, Feore suddenly launches into a complete speech, not by Lear but by the bastard Edmund, spoken while the king is off in a palace on the other side of town.
"Why bastard? Wherefore base?" Feore says with menacing charisma. "When my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous, and my shape as true, as honest madam's issue?"
It's a darn good Edmund, maybe too good for an actor playing another role – and Feore looks, for a moment, embarrassed after reaching the end of the speech. "Perhaps I shouldn't have looked at that part quite so closely…"
Affixed in Canadian imaginations for his TV and film portrayals of intellectuals from Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Glenn Gould, Feore – a 55-year-old actor raised in Windsor, Ont. – is in possession of a formidable brain himself, one of those steel-traps that seems to snap up everything that comes near it.
Not only does Feore have almost every word of Shakespeare's most perfect tragedy memorized, but he also has snippets of his research ready to recite – Harley Granville-Barker's notes to John Gielgud for a 1940 production of Lear, or lines from less obvious sources such as Michel de Montaigne, George Orwell, Carl Sagan and historian Tony Judt.
The question as he's about to take the stage as the first baby boomer to play Lear at Stratford Festival, then, isn't whether Feore is prepared – but whether all that knowledge will help or hinder his performance. Here's an actor who knows everything that's going on at all times in the play down to the lines spoken by unnamed gentlemen. But he's playing a character who can't even see what's in front of his own nose in that world – whether it's the affection of his most loving daughter, Cordelia, or the loyalty of his dearest friend, Kent.
Antoni Cimolino, Stratford Festival's artistic director and the director of this King Lear, realized exactly how deeply his star researches a stage role when he discovered in an early rehearsal that Feore had written out the entire play, every word of it, by hand on a pad like a medieval monk. "He does a lot of work," says Cimolino. "That research is good for background, but then on the first day of rehearsals you've got to throw it out the window and start to discover the play with the people there in the room."
You can understand why Feore would feel pressure to be completely ready for the production's official opening on Monday night, however. The actor – currently on the big screen as one of the villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – is following three previous Lears who are all Stratford legends born before the Second World War: Brian Bedford (2007), Christopher Plummer (2002) and the late William Hutt (1996).
And Feore's memory of Lears goes back further still: He can still hear founding Stratford member Douglas Campbell's 1985 portrayal echoing in his head. (Campbell's son Benedict, incidentally, will play Lear at Theatre Calgary and then Bard on the Beach next season). During rehearsals, Feore found himself reciting certain lines in a particular way, wondering why – and then recalling touring with Campbell back when Feore was a lesser-known 26-year-old, just in his fifth season with the Stratford Festival.
"I had to reclaim that part of the play and say: 'That's not me, I'm not Douglas Campbell – I don't have that avoirdupois," says Feore, who has made his way from Romeo to Hamlet to Macbeth at Stratford over the years and makes his home in the southwestern Ontario town with his wife Donna, a regular director at the Festival. "I can't be larger than life."
Indeed, for the Festival, this new Lear is not just a baton passed from one actor to the next, but a torch being passed to a new generation of actors that has a different approach to performing Shakespeare, less mellifluous and magical, more down-to-earth and direct. "When you see Scott Wentworth [playing Gloucester] and Stephen Ouimette [playing the Fool] and Colm together, you do realize that it is a younger generation, it is a different style of acting," says Cimolino. "It is a world of difference from Hutt and Plummer."
Adds Feore: "The days of the titans are over."
But the end of the larger-than-life King Lear, the character and actor, might actually be good for King Lear, the play. With all the focus on who is playing the title role, it is sometimes lost that the tragedy is an ensemble piece with a few of Shakespeare's most fascinating female characters. (Maev Beaty and Liisa Repo-Martell are playing Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan, characters who Feore thinks are not as irredeemably awful as most productions suggest.)
In bringing a human-size Lear to Stratford, Feore is taking his cue from one of the king's final lines, where he recalls his days as a warrior: "I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion I would have made them skip." A falchion, Feore discovered, is a shortened sword, sharpened on only one side – a close-quarters weapon. "Here's Shakespeare saying, as the guy is seconds away from death, the thing I excelled at was a short, stabbing, punching, slashing sword."
There's Feore's research popping up again. But is he now ready to let that all go, and let himself go mad on the heath?
"Gathering all these threads, I find it enormously useful, but at one point I said: 'Now I'm going to do my part,'" says Feore, who never went to university and loves the "self-directed education" that is part of his job.
Feore says this is a departure for him and part of a desire to continue improving his craft each year, and each time he returns to Stratford Festival. "I should be getting better and simpler and more honest," he says. "It takes a real, long and conscious career to get simple."