Following the fun and games of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Bannerman Park, the second Shakespearean work mounted this year by Shakespeare by the Sea is “King Lear.”
The bleakest, most remorseless of the tragedies opened Friday past on Signal Hill, accompanied by lowering clouds, a light shower of rain, unseasonably low temperature, and an unrelenting, buffeting wind.
By the intermission, I could take no more of the elements. So — unlike Lear embracing the storm on the heath — I went home, returning swaddled and winterized on a more amiable, but still breezy Saturday evening to take in post-intermission “Lear.”
Scattered amongst the rocks and scrub of the Tattoo Field, overturned shopping carts, discarded tires, car hubs and rusting oil drums express the director’s conception of a post-apocalyptic society, populated by individuals thrown back into the middle ages, costumed in black, brown, and dun furs, long tunics and leggings. The concept works, without being obtrusive.
An autocratic, elderly king rashly disinherits and banishes his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, who, unlike her two elder sisters, refuses to fawn upon her father when he proposes to divest himself of royal power and divide the kingdom between his three children — provided they tell him how much they love him. While Goneril and Regan pay extravagant lip service, honest Cordelia declines the invitation to flatter.
Once empowered, the elder daughters progressively strip Lear of his authority and demand reduction of his retinue, until he is turned out alone to fend for himself on a stormy heath.
The ordeal drives him mad. He is ultimately restored to sanity by reunion with his cherished Cordelia.
But joy is short-lived. Relentlessly pressing on to tragic resolution, Shakespeare has Cordelia murdered, followed by the death of the heart-broken king, grieving over his daughter’s corpse.
“All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly,” the Earl of Kent laments.
Accentuating this tragic arc is the parallel plot of another father betrayed.
Lear’s loyal counsellor, the Earl of Gloucester, deceived and manipulated by his illegitimate son, Edmund, disowns his legitimate son and heir, Edgar.
In the aftermath, captured and bound, Gloucester is shockingly mutilated on stage by Edmund’s patron, the Duke of Cornwall, who gouges out his eyeballs.
This play takes no hostages.
Brian d’Eon is poised and regal as King Lear in his right wits.
He is perhaps less convincing raging on the stormy heath, an episode that is challenging for any actor. He was not helped by the fact that the sheet-metal thunder-making device intended to evoke the storm simply rattled feebly.
D’Eon is right on the money, though, with the whimsical and absurdist mad scenes. Once restored to his wits, d’Eon’s Lear has his final scene with Cordelia (Rochelle Reynolds) before her death. The episode is touching on both sides, as is Lear’s lamentation over his dead daughter.
King Lear’s unnatural daughters, Goneril and Regan (Jill Kennedy and Christina Olinski, respectively), are nicely differentiated, the former intense and sharp-tongued, the latter haughtily contemptuous.
The twosome make an expert tag-team, though, whittling down the number of Lear’s attendants from a hundred to 20, 10, five, and then “What need one?”
Dave Walsh is a crusty, forthright Earl of Gloucester, always vocally clear as a bell, but too stentorian on opening night, his voice ricocheting off the rocks, overcompensating for the blustery opening-night conditions.
Quite a few male actors also sacrificed vocal variety and subtlety to town-crier levels of declamation so as to combat the wind.
Perhaps this is the price exacted by the gods for a play that invokes “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” Or perhaps it reflects the experienced actor’s instinct that subtlety be damned if the audience can’t hear the words.
Curiously, the three female leads were all vocally clear without over-amplifying.
Two male principals who also coped easily with surplus wind were Chris Panting as a smoothly cynical and audience-confiding Edmund, together with Ed Goobie’s lugubrious, cuckolded, but ultimately loyal Earl of Albany.
Chris Eustace is steady and sympathetic in the role of Edmund’s virtuous sibling, Edgar, while also revelling exuberantly in disguise as the antic Poor Tom, a seeming madman sharing the blasted heath with Lear and his nameless Fool (Doug Boyce).
Stripped to the waist in the guise of Poor Tom, Eustace made it past the intermission, which is more than could be said of this opening-night reviewer.
Michael Nolan’s Earl of Kent is intelligent and accurate, brisk in pacing and dialogue. With long experience as Shakespeare performer and teacher, Nolan is intimately familiar with Shakespeare
an language and idiom, a familiarity that translates into cogent and lucid delivery.
Ashley Billard is the bullying, eye-gouging Duke of Cornwall, the noble you love to hate, upon whom an outraged witness wreaks deadly retribution.
Two other nobles making an appearance, suitors for the hand of Cordelia in the opening scene, are the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, smoothly handled by Chris Martin and Jeremy Rose, respectively.
The part of Cornwall’s insolent retainer, Oswald, is cross-gender cast, swaggeringly played by Veronica Barton. Without creating any sense of incongruity, gender-blind casting is also used for supporting roles of nameless knights, heralds, messengers, servants,
commoners, gentlemen, and a doctor, roles taken on by Ana Hopkins, Yaping Huang, Aline Litt, Zack Moore, Ann Margaret Pope, Justin Quann, Sabrina Roberts, and Bridget Russell.
A play with as many minor supporting roles as “King Lear” provides a splendid opportunity for up-and-coming actors to wet their toes in the Shakespearean ocean.
Directed by Jenn Deon, a briskly executed “King Lear” continues its run on Signal Hill by the Visitor Centre, starting at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays until August 18, weather permitting.
With a long first act of an hour and a half and a snappier second act of 45 minutes, running time is around 165 minutes, including intermission.
On Saturday evening the play wrapped up by 9:45 p.m.
Admission is $20. Be sure to take more than enough warm clothing, as well as something to sit or lie upon.