Tuesday, 27 May 2014

King Lear: Feore's Lear gives Festival a stunning opener

King Lear
Stratford Festival
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Produced by David Auster
May 27-October 10
Festival Theatre
Approximate running time: 3 hours (with one 15-minute interval)
Contact – 1-900-567-1600
Review by Geoff Dale
STRATFORD – Actors and directors alike must surely quake in their boots when they consider playwright George Bernard Shaw’s appraisal of Shakespeare’s King Lear – “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”
Yet after three remarkable hours of its opening night presentation at the Festival Theatre, superbly gifted director Antoni Cimolino, wonderfully versatile lead actor Colm Feore and a brilliant cast deserved to breathe a collective sigh of relief, realizing all had pulled off a stunningly brilliant version of the timeless work.
From the moment Feore’s Lear begins what he believes to be the simple perfunctory feudal task of dividing up his kingdom amongst his three daughters Goneril (Maev Beaty), Regan (Liisa Repo-Martell) and Cordelia (Sara Farb) to his gut-wrenching closing scene of humble mortality, this is a production that richly earns every clique of praise thrown its way.
Feore, who has proved on so many occasions through both his screen appearances (Bon Cop Bad Cop, Trudeau and the currently-running seasonal blockbuster Spider-Man 2) and stage offerings (Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard 111), is superb, a master of the simplest nuances and most grandiose emotional outpourings and arguably one of the greatest actors on the planet.

Without hesitation, it is reasonable to proclaim this is a Lear for the ages – a fascinating characterization that lingers well beyond its three hour duration on stage.
His Lear is not just a portrayal of a man’s rapid descent into madness but, in Feore’s hands, a beautifully etched presentation of an aging monarch beset with the complexities of facing his later years juggling the conflicting emotions of passion, cruelty, kindness and often sympathy. He can neither live in the present nor fall back into the past and clearly has no concept of what the future holds for him and his family.
The King is at one moment, casually offhand, yet suddenly and without warning prone to grasping hold of unshakable, single-minded, almost unthinkably callous behaviour that literally tears his family apart.
It is a delicate juggling act that Feore handles with apparent ease – utilizing both his physical presence and vocal skills as instruments in creating a character that grips the audience with mesmerizing accuracy and poignancy. Even more importantly, this is exactly the kind of dilemma that so many families today face – to lesser and greater degrees – with elderly members coping with the horrors of dementia and mental deterioration.
Cimolino knows exactly what the task at hand is and how to succeed with an almost minimalistic approach, largely avoiding distractions – sound, set or otherwise. Lear offers much of Shakespeare’s most rich text, dense in meaning and a sheer delight to ponder during and after its presentation.
The director, in tandem with Feore, clears the pathway in a seemingly simplistic fashion – with careful guidance and pacing, permitting the actors to tell the chilling tale and watch as scene after scene unfolds magically into what is a theatrical gem.
The opening second act thunderstorm sequences are awe-inspiring. You watch helplessly with wide-eyed wonder as a once-powerful man in terrible decline, virtually out of his senses, does imaginary battle against the Gods, in reality the nature that he can no longer comprehend. At times Feore’s voice is barely audible above the raging storm but that is precisely how it would be, demonstrating how the natural forces are beyond his mortal control.
Thankfully Feore is not left alone to the task of merely presenting soliloquies of rage and despair. This is a complete cast highlighted by performances by gifted actors supplying each and every piece of the puzzle that goes into the tale of the stricken King. Stephen Ouimette’s Fool, so much in evidence in the first act, gracefully glides in and out, from the background to the forefront with sardonic wit, tomfoolery and savage brilliance.
While somewhat restrained at times, perhaps a tad too much on occasion, Sara Farb is still magnificent as the initially naïve youngest daughter Cordelia, while Liisa Repo- Martell (Regan) and Maev Beaty (Goneril) provides tasty portrayals of the often hard-to-grasp middle sister and the outwardly evil elder sibling. Dysfunctional may be an understatement in this familial structure, but likely close to the norm for those times.
Jonathan Goad continues to demonstrate his considerable range, with his spot-on delivery as Lear’s one-time servant who is also kicked to the proverbial curb but returns in another guise to serve his master. This is all about unfettered loyalty and Goad never misses a beat.
The equally important dual plot pits another unsuspecting parent against offspring. Here the Earl of Gloucester (Scott Wentworth) is undermined by the machinations of his bastard son Edmund (Brad Hodder), left banishing his legitimate offspring Edgar (Evan Buliung) into the wilderness. The results are equally satisfying.
Wentworth, in another splendid performance, unravels the complexity of his ‘old guard’ character with vigour and force, only gaining true insight when his eyes are gouged out. As the Machiavellian Edmund, Hodder is the personification of pure unfeeling evil while Buliung captures the slow but steady transformation of the gullible, trusting son to a man who finally grasps reality, this achieved through his guise as crazy ‘Poor Tom’.
The impeccable work of lighting director Michael Walton, sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne and designer Eo Sharp complement the work of director and actors, making King Lear a treat for the eyes, ears and indeed all senses.
King Lear kicks off the 2014 Stratford Festival season in Grande style – a tour-de-force that will captivate audiences. Five out of ***** stars.
This review originally appeared online at Donald's Dish.

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