The Streaming Experience: Stratford Festival’s King Lear
“The younger rises when the old doth fall.” A telling quote that lives inside Shakespeare’s King Lear. It registers as truth while also unveiling contemptuous intent. It is spoken by the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund, played to the devilish core by Brad Hodder in the emotionally captivating Stratford Festival‘s production of King Lear, presented in 2014. The filmed version I watched last night is now available for streaming by the festival on its YouTube channel for a limited amount of time. The Stratford Festival was set to open its 2020 season this coming May with a production of Richard III starring the always superb Colm Feore, alongside an offering of 15 other productions ranging from the musicals Chicago and Spamalot to the classic Hamlet. This frontmezzjunkie was super excited to be invited for the first time to review their productions and I couldn’t wait. I was in the middle of setting up my schedule when COVID-19 had other plans for the year, sadly, darkening all theaters by order of the Province of Ontario and sending the acclaimed company of actors into a wait and see limbo. Something we can all relate, I imagine.
But the Stratford Festival wasn’t going to take this lying down, like some silly fool in a storm. They will rage, fight hard for their survival, so in conjunction with William Shakespeare’s 456th birthday, the Festival launched a free streaming Shakespearean film festival on its YouTube channel, consisting of twelve productions, filmed previously, for our consumption. The first offering is Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolini’s production of King Lear, an appropriate selection since Lear was reportedly written during a quarantine from the Black Plague in 1606.
It has been said that Lear is somewhat of a paradox. He’s known for his wild and windy battles against the storm of dementia, but at the beginning of this tale, he is technically sane, looking strong and centered in his proud but narcissistic insolence, even as it is clear that the stance is highly misguided. As portrayed by the magnificent Colm Feore (CBC’s “Trudeau“, Public’s Claudius opposite Liev Schreiber’s Hamlet), his almost youthful arrogance reminds me of an older, but equally handsome Viggo Mortensen, fortified by an absurd desire, like a certain president of a certain country, to hear only praise and levels of love that makes no sense. His older two “pelican daughters“, dynamically portrayed by the excellent Maev Beaty as Goneril, and the intense Liisa Repo-Martell as the secondary Regan, willing play the insincere game, showering him with adoration that borders on the ridiculous. But Lear doesn’t hear that quality, he only registers the over-wrought deceptive venerations and digs his heels in with delight. When his favored daughter, Cordelia, the youngest and most clear-minded, played caringly by Sara Farb (Alexandra Theatre’s Jane Eyre), the tides of joy turn dark, like clouds quickly blowing in, turning from white and fluffy to dark and ominous. Dementia starts to seep in, and we see over the case of the next few hours, that seed taking hold and twisting his form and face to something quite scary, and then sad and despondent.
We know how this will run, we see it from the very beginning, and although King Lear in the hands of the powerful Feore is quite unlikeable at first; proud, argumentative, and sharp as a claw, we know the torturous journey through the wastelands will cake his frame with mud and bruises. His progression staggers forward with the wonderfully sly Fool, played to perfection by Stephen Ouimette (“Slings and Arrows“), the strong-minded loyal Kent, aggressively played by Jonathan Goad (CW’s “Reign“), and his disorderly entourage that slowly gets pared down from a hundred to barely one. Railing against the approaching storm, Feore’s Lear flounders magnificently, cruel, but quickly becoming wildly unpredictable and impotent with each turn around the stage.
On the dense shadowed stage designed by Eo Sharp, Cimolino’s production finds darkness and light playing hard against one another, thanks to some very solid work by lighting designer Michael Walton, along with composer Keith Thomas and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. The pools of light and shadow give disturbing depth to the belly of the visual and metaphorical storm, particularly in those intimate moments of shared concern, like Oimette’s Fool resting his tired head on the shoulder of Lear. Our attitude towards his arrogance softens, and we start to see his disillusionment with what he thought was important and required. Swimming in the dense mist, the elements of the betrayal seep into the theatre with its fragility and heart-breaking realizations.
Paralleling the familial betrayal between parent and child, the deceitful Edmund, muscularly portrayed by the impressive Hodder (Stratford’s Henry VIII) finds a dark sensual stance to play out his cruel plot with ease and a coolness that registers and flies forward heartlessly. He throws his half brother, the legitimate Edgar, played with passion and clarity by Evan Buliung (Toronto’s staging of Lord of the Rings) as somewhat less of a saint, underfoot, forcing the man to flee in a confused flurry of accusations into the storm, only to find himself later leading the blinded Gloucester, his father, through the wasteland. Earl of Gloucester played strongly by Scott Westworth, has also been dutifully wronged, cut down, and gruesomely gored by the same plot and ploy. The destroyed leading his blind accuser through the wasteland is one of the more fragile and clearly intimate moments of kind compassion seen between child and father. The image elevates the pain that has been forged by the callous cold-blooded Edmund. Is this what happens when mothers are not found anywhere to be seen?
The madness of the howling moments shatters the inner emotional battles to the ground, emphasizing the expanded dark space within the exquisite cinematography by film director Joan Tosoni. This Lear is powerfully ethereal and emotionally cut to the bone. Hearing the worn down Lear asking Poor Tom, “did thou give all to your daughters?” helps shift the response to the old man from annoyance to compassion. The traditional look played out in fine detailed Jacobean costumes, delivers a clear, straight forward revisitation of the compelling tale, one that I have seen so many times before, on Broadway and in Brooklyn by the RSC. I wondered if I had another viewing in me, but led by Feore through an epic arc of realization in the face of betrayal, this production gives a darker meaning to his blind needy arrogance and narcissism.
Returned from her banishment, Cordelia sits at the bedside of the found mad Lear, his sad confusion registers strongly. It’s painful to watch his struggle, as we know what the inability to recognize means, and what is in store for the poor upset former King, as he lovingly remembers both his favorite daughter and his loyal Kent. The look is all the more engaging knowing how much he has lost out of pride and fury. Director Antoni Cimolino’s production digs deep into the dark well of tragedy and giving sight metaphorically to the blind and foolish. It’s one of the strongest Lears I’ve seen, I’m sorry to say Glenda, as it sits heavy and forcible in my heart, bringing tears of grief to my eyes when the struck down King sees the ridiculousness that lived inside his ego, and the destruction it has brought.
In an effort to bring people together, the Stratford Festival will be streaming TWELVE Shakespeare productions in the coming months. They have broken the selections down into 4 categories exploring themes that directly relate to our current global pandemic and will (hopefully) encourage contemplation and discussion: Social Order and Leadership, Isolation, Minds Pushed to the Edge, and Relationships. The first selection for Social Order and Leadership is King Lear and will be premiering on Thursday April 23rd at 6:30 pm EDT beginning with “An Actor Prepares with Colm Feore” who plays King Lear followed by the production at 7 pm EDT. This theme will be rounded out with Coriolanus and Macbeth premiering over the next two weeks. “Many of the qualities that put a leader into a position of power are not the same as those required during a crisis. The leaders in these films – King Lear, Coriolanus, and Macbeth – were each warriors who rose to power because of their martial skills. As such they did not have the qualities of compassion, consensus-building, and vision – qualities we know today are vital during a crisis.” (You can read the frontmezzjunkies article about Stratford’s streaming schedule by clicking here.) I believe each of these will be available for 3 weeks following their premieres.
for those who are able in these trying times, please consider donating to one (or all) of these arts organizations, as they strive to provide artistic beauty and intellectual stimulation to the world during this pandemic. My hope is that this time will remind people just how vital the arts are to our communities, our sense of self, and (for many of us) our sanity.