Shakespeare’s King Lear is not for the faint of heart.
Cruelty, despair and madness anchor the play. Fond and foolish Lear may bring on his own fate, but the treatment the aging king receives from two of his three daughters and his descent into unreality devastate us. Gloucester, Lear’s faithful supporter, gets his eyes gouged out. And when Cordelia, Lear’s only loving child, dies, it’s as though all that was ever good and sane and hopeful has been extinguished (no wonder Samuel Johnson said he could never read the final scene again). Plus, it’s a really long script.
All that to say that successfully mounting the play demands extraordinary reserves of acting, directing and every other kind of talent. Bear & Co.’s production at The Gladstone deserves applause for its ambition, but falls short in its execution.
You already know how the story goes. Lear (Peter James Haworth, who also directs the show) decides to divvy up his kingdom among his three daughters and take it easy for the rest of his days. Two daughters, Goneril (an admirably icy Laura Hall) and Regan (Lydia Riding) fawn over him. Cordelia (Gabriella Gadsby) refuses to play the game. Lear – nothing if not tempestuous – disinherits Cordelia and hands over everything to the other two. Things go badly thereafter: greed does its dirty work; old resentments corrode relationships; the kingdom veers toward chaos.
For all this to work, the play needs to crackle with tension, conflict, passion. Characters have to connect profoundly. Lear’s world must matter to us.
Instead, that crucial dividing up of the kingdom at the beginning moves at a glacial pace. The blinding of Gloucester (played for no apparent reason as a woman by Eleanor Crowder), an act as horrific metaphorically as it is physically, is curiously flat. Lear’s simultaneously crazed and clear-sighted moments on the heath feel more studied than spontaneous, as does much of Haworth’s performance (directing and playing the lead role was likely not a good idea).
The play, in other words, isn’t lived so much as it is presented. Even the normally buoyant Pierre Brault as Lear’s truth-speaking Fool — “Who here can tell me who I am?” asks the king at one point. “Lear’s shadow,” responds the Fool — seems encumbered by the production’s self-consciousness.
That self-consciousness, or at least a redundant wish to make the play relevant in 2019, may have also influenced the flawed editing of Lear’s lines at the end. Why, for instance, remove the reference to women’s voices in the second line of Lear’s sad, deluded tribute to Cordelia – “Her voice was ever soft/Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman” – other than to censure Lear’s, and the age’s, view of women?
There are some solid stretches in the production.
Gabriel Schultz brings a hearty and conniving bitterness to Edmund, the bastard brother of good-guy Edgar (Phillip Merriman). It’s too bad, in a period costume production, that Edmund is wearing modern-day boots seemingly stained by Ottawa’s salt-strewn sidewalks.
Leah Cogan’s Kent is a plain-spoken and faithful servant to Lear, the kind of person his kingdom needs more of.
And Howarth’s Lear is moving more than once. “Dear daughter, I confess that I am old/Age is unnecessary,” he says to the smarmy Regan, his barely contained irony speaking volumes about the casting off of the old and infirm.
It’s just too bad we don’t have more of those moments in this King Lear.
King Lear is a Bear & Co. production. It’s at The Gladstone until March 30. The show was reviewed Thursday. Tickets: Gladstone box office, (613) 233-4523, thegladstone.ca