The 55th edition of the Stratford Festival began May 28 with an aural flourish that included a pipe band dressed in regulation, largely-together brass fanfares herding the capacity crowd and a lusty rendition of the national anthem before the audience settled down to the famed fest’s ninth production of King Lear. Shakespeare’s tale of unquenchable familial greed and deadly sibling rivalry began its timeless quest for truth within 30 minutes of the launch of another search for love-from-a-nation and respect from peers. The choke-laden Senators of Ottawa (requiring two helpings of patriotic devotion for their overture), having last tasted victory long before the Bard’s fest pitched its first tent near the banks of the Canadian incarnation of the Avon River, began to battle the dastardly Ducks of Anaheim.
This Lear is a worthy start to the season-long adieu to Richard Monette. The Festival’s artistic director has served longer than any of his predecessors, magically turned red ink into black, renovated the flagship theatres, built another and established an endowment. A singular legacy, indeed.
As impressive as Monette’s successes are, none of them would have been possible without the other gifted “I’s” in his artistic ranks and production court. Loyal to a fault, their duty to art pays off where it counts the most: on the stage.
As director, Brain Bedford sagely cast himself in the title role, resulting in a unity of understanding and purpose that, though slow to ignite, magnificently burns with rage (while his eldest daughters—Wenna Shaw, delectably vicious as Goneril; Wendy Robie, mixing cunning cool with a patronizing tone to great effect as Regan learn more than they want to), simmers in the grim reality that he’s banished his most loyal subjects (notably the Earl of Kent, given a beautifully compassionate reading by another dependable “I,” Peter Donaldson) before, finally, the troubled monarch himself is pathetically snuffed out.
The desperately mad king dies of a broken heart, having just held his third daughter (Cordelia, needing an ounce more poise from Sara Topham to compare favourably to the skills of her evil siblings) dead in his arms—another victim of corruption, jealously and greed. Bedford’s carefully arched descent into his own awful truth is a marvel to behold. The famous “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech manages to fly over the considerable might of Jim Neil’s (with spot-on support from Michael J. Whitfield’s stellar lighting design) equally raging storm. More than words: scene-by-scene the hapless king retreats steadily into himself, railing at the largely self-induced misery sparked by demanding, then believing protestations of love from his offspring. Finally, the cancer of betrayal feasts one last time and a brief vision of what might have been fades from view.
Intertwined with Lear’s journey, is a bounty of eyes. In all, the actual word appears well over 100 times in the script. But it’s in the subplot of the Earl of Gloucester (Scott Wentworth) and his two sons (Edmund, the bastard—delivered with vigour—particularly the soliloquies—if a more petulant volume than becomes a truly diabolical conniver by Dion Johnstone; Edgar: high marks indeed for Gareth Potter both as the naïve elder brother and the metaphorically-rich depiction when disguised as the naked and homeless, Tom o’ Bedlam) where the twin orbs on either side of the nose nearly steal the show.
Pissed at being made fun of for being born out of wedlock, Edmund plots a revenge-fuck of monstrous proportions. Through a litany of lies, forged documents, sack time with Goneril and a self-inflicted wound to convince his father that his heir means to kill him, Edmund succeeds to the point that the Earl’s eyes are plucked from their sockets by the Duke of Cornwall (Regan’s husband, Wayne Best). This horrific punishment lets Shakespeare rant long and hard, from politicians (“Get thee glass eyes; And like a scurvy politician, seem ”) to more droll matter (“ ‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”) espoused by the King’s Fool (Bernard Hopkins—pitch perfect in every line).
Unforgettable is the meeting of the blind Earl and morbid Lear. The former sees more of reality now that his sight has gone, the latter has viewed so much that his troubled mind slips happily into insanity, the underbelly of the “real” world is too much to bear.
Moments like these are what make classical theatre addictive. Beyond the archaic language, period sets and costumes, and plots that seem far too fantastic to twenty-first century realists, is the playwright’s unerring, timeless insight into the often unsavoury elements of the human condition.
Do make the trek and discover with your own eyes how the Duke of Albany’s mantra (“All friends shall taste/ The wages of their virtue, and all foes/ The cup of their deservings. O, see, see!”) still rules the world today. JWR