For this post I’m going to start off by saying this will likely be filled with spoilers about Stratford’s AMAZING production of King Lear starring the incomparable Colm Feore, which I had the absolute pleasure of witnessing on August 23rd. For me, this production was so fascinating and wonderful, that I just can’t keep cooped up all of the ideas and inspiration that came from seeing this show.
First of all, there was the theatre itself. It was freezing cold. I know that the theatres are usually cold for most people, but normally, I’m comfortable. But this was just downright frigid. It was marvellous, because as the storm got worse and as King Lear himself moves outside, it got even colder! It was immersive in a totally different way than expected. To feel and hear the storm along with King Lear makes us suffer with him, makes us understand what he’s feeling.
Having studied this play rather in depth, there were a few things that I was specifically looking for when I was watching the play. The first was King Lear’s entrance. There are two different versions of the play (the quarto and folio) and in one King Lear enters with his crown on and in the other he already has his crown off. While this seems like a subtle difference, it totally shapes how Lear is viewed. In this production, there is no sign of King Lear’s crown, and yet all three of his daughters have circlets on. It shows that Lear’s power has really transferred more to them than resides in Lear. But then, when he banishes Cordelia, he takes off her circlet, and brandishes it as he sends her away, thus temporarily taking back the power he had given Cordelia and using it against her. Now, whether this shows that Lear is mad right from the get go, or that he had just given up on controlling his daughters and his kingdom is totally up to personal interpretation. However, with the way the rest of the play follows, and the theme of madness highlighting the season, I would argue the former.
On a side note, I found that having the all three daughters be young made the play very different to watch. We usually get a very Cinderella like feel from this play, like Goneril and Reagan are so much older and like the ugly stepsisters, and then Cordelia is the sweet, pretty youngest daughter. However with Liisa Repo-Martell, Maev Beaty and Sara Farb all looking around the same age, we instead watch these three sisters compete for their father’s love and then have to deal with his senility and odd behaviour afterwards. I found that because they seemed less like hags, you could feel a little bit more pity for them than what I have seen and felt otherwise. While this certainly doesn’t excuse the actions that Goneril and especially Reagan take against their father, there are other times when the two of them are talking that you understand their frustration with their father a little more.
The other thing I look for is Cordelia’s entrance. Like Lear’s there are small variations between the quarto and folio editions, and yet they do make quite a difference in how we see Cordelia’s re-emergence into her English home. In one version Cordelia enters alone, and in the other she enters with soldiers and drums and trumpets to announce her coming. If she enters with the soldiers and the pomp, it shows that Cordelia has changed, she has become part of the French people who are fighting against the English and her return is triumphant. However if she comes in alone, she looks almost like a refugee, almost like her father who himself is wandering alone. What I found interesting about this production is that it had a little bit of both: there were two soldiers, but none of the triumphant pomp that is a possibility. It makes sense that she would have a small entourage as it would be dangerous for a woman to be entering such a hostile land alone. I think this balance shows the balance of Cordelia herself, that while she has done well for herself in France, she does in a way belong with her family.
Ok, let’s get back to this production itself. One of the first things that I noticed and that I loved was the presence of the Bedlam Beggars. They enter before the play begins and we watch as they attempt to survive the storm that we can hear brewing in the distance. These ‘madmen’ punctuate the play, linking the madness within the court to the madness outside its walls that will later be exploited by Edgar. They really ground the play, the make it feel more like this can happen to anyone rather than just this King, this Aristotelean “great man.” The face that Edgar is invited to go with them at the end, but chooses not to is rather significant as well, it’s like he could have chosen not to be king, not to fulfill the charge that has been laid on him, but to continue to live his life as Poor Tom. It’s fascinating.
Speaking of Poor Tom/Edgar, I thought Evan Buliung was fabulous. I had heard Antoni Cimolino (the amazing director of this beautiful piece of theatre) talk about how he wanted Edgar to come off and how he saw him compared to the generic view of this play, and I thought Evan pulled it off beautifully. While we don’t pity Edgar as much as some other characters (he comes off as a womanizer and a drunk like his father Gloucester) when he is Poor Tom and we watch him grapple with some potentially very real demons, it’s very hard to not feel some sort of pity for him.
There is a scene just after the storm where Poor Tom/Edgar and King Lear first meet, and I thought that Cimolino portrayed it beautifully. When Lear looks into the eyes of this poor beggar he sees himself, and to show that they had two bright spotlights shine down on both of them, looking like a mirror. The questions he proceeds to ask Tom are heartbreaking; asking if his daughters betrayed him too, if that’s why he’s out in this awful storm is because of his ungrateful daughters. While many of the audience members laughed because it’s almost comical the way he fires the questions to rapidly and yet we know they’re about his experience, I wanted to cry. How devastating to watch this poor, old king seeing HIMSELF in this beggar man, in this tortured soul wandering the heath along with him. I found it interesting that while so many people seemed amused I was so crushed by the events, and yet once again it proves the beauty of theatre and the varying experiences one can have.
The storm itself was something to behold. The room is so full of smoke and fog and then out of nowhere comes the shadowy figure of Lear flashing with the lightning. It was stunning. I was petrified. I loved it. It’s something that almost can’t be described and needs to be experienced. And that’s truly what it was, was an experience. It had gotten so cold and the thunder and rain continued rolling through the theatre all during intermission, and you really felt like you were in the storm with King Lear and his fool (played ever so perfectly by Stephen Ouimette).
The other scene that is always worth a mention is the infamous eye plucking scene. I worked on this scene for my Shakespeare class in University, but boy did they ever outdo what I thought could be done with this scene. First of all though, I’d like to mention that Scott Wentworth, who plays Gloucester this season, also played the same role back in 2007 when I first saw Lear at the festival. So to have to watch this man get his eyes plucked out twice in a lifetime is a little bit much! He plays the role so fabulously however, and this time was so different than the last that I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I digress; the eye plucking was so wonderfully gory and awful that even I screamed! They actually threw a fake eye ball, not round and hard but icky and gushy and slimy onto the stage! It was so disgusting, but put the audience so firmly within the play that even the audience members furthest away reacted! It was simultaneously wonderful and petrifying all at once; it was exactly what that scene should be. It’s so horrible what Reagan and Cornwall think they can get away with, especially when they’re in Gloucester’s home! It’s so barbaric, but that shows us another side to madness: where we are willing to do awful animalistic acts just to get what we want or enact what we think is justice on those whom we deem deserve it.
Overall, this to me was a life changing play: I’ll never look at Lear the same way again, nor will I ever forget this particular production. Everyone was so fabulous, so well-cast (I haven’t even gotten to mention Johnathan Goad who played Kent and I LOVED him!), and just overall made it such a moving experience. I cried. I really, really did. Even though I knew what was going to happen, it didn’t matter. This cast, this production, made it so real that I felt so horrible I had to cry. When I told my best friend I cried, he asked me “who did you cry for?” and I told him “all of them, but not so much them, but for their situation. It’s heartbreaking.” To me, that makes it a great work of art, because we cry for all of them, not just one person, we cry because the whole situation just is just awful, and we wouldn’t wish it on anyone and yet we know it happens all the time (just maybe not to only kings). I loved this production more than I can express, and I’m so happy that it will be immortalized on film; it certainly deserves it.
For tickets, go to: http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/OnStage/productions.aspx?id=24119&prodid=52389