Did William Shakespeare ever have his heart broken by a loved one suffering from a deteriorating mind? There are moments in King Lear, and particularly in the Stratford Festival's new production of the play starring Colm Feore, that will ring absolutely real to anyone who has watched an ageing relative losing his mind to dementia.
The most powerful comes when Cordelia (Sara Farb), returned from her banishment and at the bedside of Lear, asks "Sir, you know who I am?" He doesn't and he does – and here's the deep, deep sadness that comes from a father's inability to see his daughter, followed by an elation that comes from his subsequent remembering, all the more sweet because it may just be fleeting.
In director Antoni Cimolino's production, this scene is more wrenching than the later, more famous one, when Lear, his dead daughter now in his arms, enters howling. This is because the earlier moment is one of recognition, that prerequisite for tragedy, and a moment of seeing what is true not just for Lear but for the audience, or any audience member who has been in a similar situation – which in our ageing society is almost everyone.
Dark and dully designed by Eo Sharp, Cimolino's production is in its element in such intimate moments, often defined by human touch: When Stephen Ouimette's childlike Fool rests his head on Lear's shoulder, or Evan Buliung's humbled Edgar leads his blinded father Gloucester by the hand to the edge of what he says are the cliffs of Dover.
In the howling moments – the battles, the blindings, the storm – this Lear is lacking; the ethereal, the astrological, the mythological don't quite register no matter how how many smoke machines sputter away. With its bulky Jacobean costumes, this down-to-earth production can look and feel a mite musty and Shakespeare-y; the plots and action of the play often moves too quickly to really ride, even as the play seems to drag on. But it does have mostly fine performances from the Stratford company, particularly Feore's very fallible and fleshly Lear: He is every centimetre a man.
Northrop Frye wrote of the paradox that is Lear that, at the start of the play, he "is technically sane, but everything he says and does is absurd. In his mad scenes his associations are often hard to follow, but his general meaning is blindly clear."
This is the arc Feore, Stratford Festival's first baby boomer Lear, follows with confidence. For the first half of the play, in fact, he is downright unlikeable – angry, sentimental and the member of his family who is actually sharper than a serpent's tooth.
Feore's body movements show how out of balance he is; he limps and even staggers about the Festival Theatre thrust stage like a sailor on a stormy sea. Later, he becomes even more wild in his movements, as unpredictable and impotent as a jack-in-the-box.
Lear's accusations against his children then are thick with sour irony, the same that underly every instance where a boomer calls a millennial entitled. Cimolino's production probes the generation gap – then and now – intelligently, though does not tell us who to love. (He does, repeatedly, tell us to love the homeless, ham-fistedly.) Both Cordelia and Brad Hodder's bookish Edmund are the first to confess their thoughts to the audience directly in asides – and at first we're not sure with which mistreated child our sympathies should lie, even if we've already seen the play.
Lear's unbanished daughters seem rightly exasperated with him. Maev Beaty's astonishing Goneril never completely loses our backing even as she and her sister Regan (a spoiled-seeming Liisa Repo-Martell) become increasingly monstrous. Lear's cursing of Goneril's womb is so horrid – Feore almost sexually assaults her, while her husband stands by – that you can explain away her subsequent reactions as trauma.
Normally, Lear's wandering out into the storm shifts sympathies entirely, flattens the characters into good and bad. Not so here in Cimolino's production, which only becomes bleak and then breaks a little until we're back in some semblance of society again. (In Lear's wanderings, Feore dresses like a hippie with flowers in his long, flowing hair, while Jonathan Goad's Duck Dynasty accent as Kent-in-disguise becomes increasingly tiresome.)
The production comes back together, however, and refocuses as Cordelia and Lear have their heartbreaking reunion. At the end of the play, Thomas Ryder Payne's auditory design sounds a subtle final note – we hear the crashing waves that Edgar tells Gloucester to listen for. We have been led to the edge as well.
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