King Lear – 2023

Dark Humour with a Different Lear

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

How wonderful to have Stratford Festival return to the grandeur of the opening week, something we haven’t seen since 2019. It felt like all the pomp and circumstance was back in place after Covid wreaked havoc with the last three seasons.

In hopes of filling the theatre post-pandemic, the Festival has brought back a name well known to Canadians:  Paul Gross opens the season as King Lear.

Gross was last in Stratford in 2000 as Hamlet in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and attracted a large audience then, thanks to his popularity as the Mountie in TV’s Due South. (Yes, my then 15-year-old daughter asked to join me for a Shakespearean play, thanks to the very handsome Paul Gross!)

He’s also well-known for Slings and Arrows, a TV spoof on what seems to be the Stratford Festival, and his movie Men with Brooms, a comedy about curling. I think his best work ever can be seen in his World War I movie, Passchendaele, in 2008. He wrote, directed and played the lead in it.

This year’s King Lear is directed by Kimberley Rampersad, and she is making full use of Gross’s star power. She has created a new and different version of King Lear – both the man and the play. One doesn’t go to see King Lear and expect to laugh, but laugh we did on opening night.

Now that he is old, King Lear of Britain has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Their portion of the kingdom will be decided by how much they love him. Goneril (Shannon Taylor) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green) both enthusiastically declare their love and earn their father’s praise. But Cordelia, (Tara Sky) the youngest, says nothing because she believes her steadfast love for her father should be self-evident. Misunderstanding his daughter, Lear banishes her from Britain. He also banishes the Earl of Kent (David W. Keeley), who had taken Cordelia’s side. Both daughters and their husbands, Albany (Austin Eckert) and Cornwall (Rylan Wilkie), show their greed, and later cast their father out on a stormy night.

Lear goes mad, realizing that indeed only Cordelia truly loved him. Kent, disguised as a servant, and the court’s Fool (Gordon Patrick White), go with Lear to protect him. In the meantime, Edgar (André Sills), son of Gloucester (Anthony Santiago), is tricked by his bastard brother Edmund (Michael Blake). Gloucester believes Edgar is trying to harm him and Edgar flees disguised as a beggar, Poor Tom. So Regan and her husband Cornwall accuse Gloucester of treason and gouge out his eyes. And in true Shakespearean fashion, everyone is embittered and embattled and the play ends in death for nearly everyone, leaving Albany and Edgar as the only survivors who now have to restore Britain.

Yes, there is a lot going on, and Rampersad has somehow made it all happen with a Lear who is sarcastic and has a nasty sense of humour. Gross cleverly becomes that annoying person: you are never really sure if he means it, or if he is trying to be funny. I remember in high school I wrote a paper for English class – is Hamlet’s madness real or feigned? That old question popped into my mind while watching Gross’s Lear. Is he really going crazy or is it all fake? Gross’s use of intonation and gesture makes the audience laugh. With the chuckles sprinkled throughout the performance, the opening night audience even laughed when Gloucester’s eyes were plucked out, which of course, lessens the impact of the spurting jelly and blood.

Shannon Taylor is outstanding Lear’s daughter Goneril. Her conniving ways show through. David W. Keeley is excellent as Kent and later disguised as the servant. He has that special talent of speaking Shakespearean language so that you forget it’s Shakespeare and understand every word. His ability to project without yelling is also the mark of a good actor.

The trio of Gloucester and sons Edmund and Edgar were well-played by Anthony Santiago, Michael Blake and André Sills respectively. They made their sub-plot fascinating. Also captivating the audience was the Fool, Gordon Patrick White. The rest of the cast was solid, working well with Rampersad’s vision of dark humour.

Paul Gross’s King Lear is very different from Colm Feore’s Lear that opened the Festival in 2014. Antoni Cimolino directed a very dark and draining version of the play. There was only one laugh. In my review, I mentioned this one instance because it stood out from the rest of the darkness : “The only comedy in this play comes when the mad King crosses paths with the insane beggar, Poor Tom, who is actually Edgar in disguise. Edgar feigns madness to avoid being apprehended, based on Edmund’s lies. Lear is quite taken with “Tom” and tells him he must have daughters because he is so miserable.”

So is Rampersad’s version better or worse than the 2014 production?  No, no better, no worse, just very different. And I appreciate the variety she’s offered.

King Lear continues in repertory until October 28 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca

Photo: 1. Paul Gross (centre) as King Lear surrounded by his daughters, Act I. Photo by David Hou.

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Kimberley Rampersad
Performed by Paul Gross, Shannon Taylor, Tara Sky, Déjah Dixon-Green, et al.
Stratford Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 30 to October 29, 2023
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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