—Benedict Campbell & Jennifer Lines. KING LEAR, 2015. Bard on the Beach. Photo: David Blue
Shakespeare’s King Lear is a towering achievement, one of the top-three plays of all time in my book, and a tough play to make work. In places it’s almost operatic in its size and demands—Lear’s mad scene on the heath, shouting at the gods over the sounds of the roaring storm. Elsewhere it’s an intimate domestic tragedy: brother against brother, sister against sister, parents vs. children. There’s terror and tenderness, sometimes in the same scene. And an old man raging against his growing impotence.
Dennis Garnhum’s Bard on the Beach production, in collaboration with Theatre Calgary, gets much of it right. The staging is clear and unfussy; unlike the disastrous high-concept Lear at Bard in 2008, there’s no attempt to modernize (or musicalize) the text. Benedict Campbell hits many of the high notes as Lear, especially in his scenes with Scott Bellis’ brilliant Fool (shades of Robin Williams!). John Murphy is marvelous as Lear’s loyal friend Kent, and Colleen Wheeler lends her usual grand physical and vocal presence to Goneril, the world’s worst daughter—though in places very clearly Lear’s daughter. The scene where Goneril and Regan (Jennifer Lines) try to strip their father of his followers and dignity (“Reason not the need!” he cries) is terrifying and heartbreaking.
Most of the first act is terrific, but the second act loses momentum, especially after the Fool disappears. (Savour the moment when he hands over his motley to Edgar.) The Gloucester family subplot doesn’t generate as much interest or energy as it needs to, with Nathan Schmidt ‘s feral Poor Tom more effective than David Marr’s histrionic Gloucester or Michael Blake’s smug Edmund. Andrea Rankin seems curiously detached as Cordelia, but it’s impossible not to feel the pity and terror of profound tragedy when Lear enters, howling, with Cordelia dead in his arms.
Costume designer Deitra Kalyn provides a nice touch in dressing Goneril and Regan in matching colours and patterns, the twin sisters from hell. But the sheets hanging on Pam Johnson’s set in the first scenes (perhaps to suggest tapestries?) just look tacky. And why would the director have a servant stand in the middle of a scene with Goneril, Regan, Edmund and Gloucester, holding a torch—in broad daylight—that upstages them all?