Poor old King Lear. First he banishes the one daughter that loves him and gives his kingdom away to the two that hate him. Then he gets humiliated, left outside in a storm, and goes mad. Shakespeare’s Lear is foolish and at times pathetic. But he’s also tragic: a great man who falls from a great height, learns harsh lessons, and expresses profound truths in some of the most magnificent language ever spoken.
Poor old Lear. In the Bard on the Beach production starring Christopher Gaze, director James Fagan Tait adds to the King’s indignities by frequently upstaging him and inadvertently trivializing his tragedy. This Lear is humanized but shrunken.
Tait’s innovative formula involves stylizing the action, adding choral sequences and placing composer/musician Joelysa Pankanea centre-stage along with cast members on guitars. He modernizes the play, putting Lear in a wheelchair surrounded by suits, making the Fool a nurse (Patti Allan), and turning swordfights into gunfights.
This works beautifully in the opening scene with daughters Cordelia (Melissa Poll), Goneril (Lois Anderson) and Regan (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight), where Lear wears a paper crown and divides his kingdom by cutting a cake as the court sings “Happy Birthday.”
But then the equally tragic Earl of Gloucester (Christopher Weddell), who misjudges his good son Edgar (Todd Talbot) and his evil son Edmund (Robert Moloney), sings and dances a key speech about love and loyalty with the cast as background chorus. This gets big laughs from much of the audience, which now seems to think the play a comedy. Tait reinforces this with the gratuitous appearance of a Lucy Ricardo-like maid running a vacuum cleaner across the stage just after Lear first realizes he may be losing his mind.
The unfortunate result is that some of Lear’s most powerful moments—when he curses his daughters or threatens to kill his enemies—subsequently get laughs. And in one of the most poignant scenes, his lament for his dead daughter is undercut and drained of its power by the overlay of music and choral song.
Gaze brings dignity, sensitivity and exquisite diction to this role of a lifetime, as well as admirable restraint. But his performance lacks the size and weight needed to fully counterbalance the music and comedy. Weddell is excellent as the unfortunate Gloucester, as are Gerry Mackay as Lear’s loyal servant Kent and Andrew Wheeler as the evil Cornwall. The nasty sisters also excel but Moloney is surprisingly flat as Edmund, one of Shakespeare’s juiciest characters.
Tait’s high-concept Timon of Athens was one of Bard’s triumphs last season. But King Lear is a much greater play and doesn’t need the help. Better to trust the actors and the text.