Saturday 4 July 2015

Lear is breathtaking, mesmerizing, brilliant

Backdrop to the famous King Lear : King Lear is perhaps the most literary and gilded story of a father having a profound and prolonged Snit ever imagined and written in English (or likely any other language). The plot commences with a vast stretch of crudulity : Dad decides to try on semi-retirement. He says he will trifurcate the lands of his British kingdom and visit them in equal shares on his three daughters. He will retain all kingly prerogatives for himself, however. In historical UK such a scenario would be quite unlikely given all the intrigue over the centuries to keep the country's chippy clans and cousins unified under one crown.

How it all begins : The play starts when Lear asks each of the girls point-blank who is prepared to slaver their profession of devotion over him most : she and her mate will get the "largest third" of his kingdom. Eldest Goneril and second sister Regan heap on the sweet nothings.

Then comes baby sister Cordelia, youngest, fairest, most prized by Dad, as yet unwed. She refuses to play the game, however. Because, she tells him, when I marry I will need to give half my life's love to my betrothed : how can I possibly declare 100% of my heart to my father. No, to you, Dad, I will continue to show the affection and respect expected of a dutiful daughter, same as you've shown me all my life, that's it.

And from that unlikely start within the first scene a tragical tale unfolds with banishments, mayhem, murder, plucked-out eyes and caselots of WS's clever words to explain the why of all this hopelessly negative EQ run amok. Love = blind loyalty = property = power -- and all fly on gossamer wings. That something so benign as "filial ingratitude" should ever wreak such familial havoc is utterly unimaginable except in theatre.

"My tender-hearted nature shall never give over to harshness," Lear declares with typical blindness along the way. Is he daft? Suffereth he from senility or dementia or late-stage onset? All of the above and then some were this piece contemporary drama. But in WS's time there was still considerable truck in Fates, astrology, gods both generic and Christian, Mother Nature -- all of which are blamed singly and collectively for conspiring and condemning privileged royalty & aristocracy to let hubris o'ertake their senses.

A word about 'tragedy' : Since first reading it at university, King Lear has always struck me as considerably less a whole than the sum of its parts -- more potboiler than poignant treatise on how death stalks everyone in Lear's entourage -or- how love is complicated in family relations. 

A straightforward definition of tragedy leads me to this view I've held some 50 years now : "A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a result of a tragic flaw or moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavourable circumstances."  [Courtesy online Free Dictionary].

Hard to imagine disagreeing with Cordelia's logic about her heart were any of my three adult bairns to aim such a point-of-view at me. Even if I considred qualified or conditional love an "unfavourable circumstance", surely I would not be brought to ruin  or suffer extreme sorrow or be unable to cope as a result. Lear the victim of moral weakness or just royal ego writ large? Tragic flaw or pompous pique?

Lear doesn't enrage like Macbeth. Or engage like poor Hamlet. But he has captured the imagination of actors and audiences for four centuries. To this day patrons and critics and academics continue to swoon.

Enough, already, what about Bard's production : Director Dennis Garnhum mounted the Bard version originally with Theatre Calgary for its 2015 winter season so the production is not new in that sense. Nor is the script new to the Campbell family. Campbell pere, Douglas, all but owned Lear's role in his time in the footlights (the Bard's Howard Family stage is named in his honour). For his part, Campbell fils Benedict absolutely shreds the role as snowboarders would say.

Indeed, to call this production "engaging" would damn it with faint praise. It is not engaging. It is gripping. It clasps eye and ear relentlessly. It compels a total baptismal immersion into the magic waters of WS. Benedict Campbell channels Lear completely, thoroughly, inextricably. The power of his crescendos and decrescendos and sotte voce whispers resonates across and above the mainstage such that the air ambulance jet helicopters plying the skies overhead are upstaged and cowered. His capture of the cadence and the inflection and the nuances of WS's dialogue is stupendous.

Character dynamics galore : Despite my misgivings about a plot fundamentally about events that "come between a dragon and his wrath", the dramatic tension of the script no matter its faulty psychic footing wins out completely. (The late psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser disparaged what he called "cause-&-effect" personal conduct, e.g. that Cordelia's demurral at Dad Lear's demand for infinite adoration should somehow justify his subsequent psychic implosions. No, Glasser would contend, such behaviours are pure choice by Lear.)

Supporting Campbell with equal verve and creative interpretation is Scott Bellis as Lear's Fool, who carries Shakespeare's thematic intent : "If I were not a fool, nuncle, I would have thee beaten for being old before thy time!" he tells Lear. Lear is shaken at the impudence. "How's that...?" he responds edgily. "Thou shouldst not have been old until thou had been wise," Fool continues. "Oh, let me not be mad, be mad, sweet Heaven. I would not be mad. Keep me in temper. I would not be mad," Lear snuffles lamely in reply. Bellis works the Fool with ingenious thrumming and teasing taunts ever mindful of his fragile favoured position as Lear's confidante and conscience. His success is but transitory.

John Murphy as Earl of Kent and then the disguised "Caius", Lear's Irish best boy, was acrobatic in the Caius role, a true gem of character acting. As real-time Edgar and then the self-disguised outcast Tom of Bedlam, Nathan Schmidt gave both his Gloucester roles a hearty turn. Brother Edmond was played with quiet demonic menace by Michael Blake. Until he was blinded (graphically!), I found David Marr's Earl of Gloucester too consistently on the "shouty" side of the audiometer. Sisters Goneril (Colleen Wheeler) and Regan (Jennifer Lines) reminded me of many siblings I've witnessed over the decades : equally capable of loyalty, cozening and conspiratorial waspishness. Well-wrought sizzle and seething by both.

Production values add up : Scenery designer Pam Johnson decided on a utilitarian set : six carpenter'd spike gates; teak-like tables and royal stools; Cariboo-cabin stairs leading to railed platforms upstage. All of this lets the acting draw the audience in without distraction. Costumes by Deitra Kalyn offset richly these spare set designs. Good period-piece original music by Dave Pierce contributed nicely to the overall effect : the opening Repent! dirge was perfect.

Who gonna like : Not to fawn, but I do not believe I have ever heard an actor in Vancouver wrestle the magic poesy and dialogue of Billy Bard to the ground quite like Benedict Campbell achieves in his superb interpretation of this oh-so-intemperate fellow Lear. Despite the governor that checks my enthusiasm for the play's plotline, I make no apology for the thick throat and free tears that coursed my cheeks at Lear's reaction to Cordelia's death. No parent could respond otherwise, I reckon. This production, some three hours' stage-time, held my attention from breath one to breath the last. I would go again in a heartbeat.

Addendum :  Over the years I have found one of the hardest tasks is to summarize a play's plot succinctly and readably. Bard On The Beach's program notes do this well indeed for this typically-complicated Shakespeare plot, thus I reproduce it here with my thanks to them :

   King Lear, the King of Britain, has decided to retire and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Before doing so, he asks each of them to tell him how much they love him. His elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, shower him with words of love. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, replies simply that she loves him as much as a daughter should. Outraged, Lear banishes Cordelia and divides his entire estate between the two older daughters. His loyal advisor, the Duke of Kent, objects to Lear's actions and is also banished. The King of France offers to marry Cordelia without a dowry and the two depart the kingdom.

   Meanwhile, Lear's friend, the Earl of Gloucester, is told by his illegitimate son Edmund that his older, legitimate son Edgar is plotting to murder him. This is a lie made up by Edmund who wants his brother's inheritance for himself. Edmund persuades Edgar to flee for his life. Edgar goes into hiding by adopting thde disguise of a beggar named "Poor Tom".

   Having given up his kingdom, Lear plans to stay with Goneril and Regan for one month at a time. The banished Duke of Kent disguises himself and rejoins Lear at the home of Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. Goneril complains to her father about the riotous behaviour of his entourage of knights, and asks him to dismiss half of them. Angered at this lack of respect, Lear departs to stay with Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. However, he finds the two daughters are of the same mind. Distraught, Lear wanders out into a wild storm.

   Led through the storm by Kent and his Fool, Lear is brought to a hovel where Edgar has been hiding. Gloucester secretly arranges for Lear to be sent to Dover, where Cordelia has landed with the French army to fight on the king's behalf. Gloucester is punished by Regan and Cornwall for the act of loyalty to the king.

   As war between England and France looms, Edmund takes advantage of both Goneril and Regan's growing attraction to him. Lear is reunited with Cordelia, but soon the time comes when all sides must meet on the battlefield.  

Particulars :  Now on until September 20 at the Bard BMO mainstage at Vanier Park. Run-time 180 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. Tickets & schedules for the repertory performances with Bard's three other plays via or by phoning the box office at 604.739.0559.

Production crew :  Artistic Director Christopher Gaze.  Director Dennis Garnhum.  Costume Designer Deitra Kalyn.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Original Music Composer Dave Pierce.  Fight Directors Haysam Kadri, Karl Sine.  Production Dramaturg Shari Wattling.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Alexandra Shewan.  Apprentice Director Mike Griffin.

Peformers :  Anousha Alamian (A Knight).  Scott Bellis (The Fool).  Michael Blake (Edmund).  Ian Butcher (Oswald).  Benedict Campbell (King Lear).  Craig Erickson (King of France).  Robert Klein (Cornwall).  Jennifer Lines (Regan).  David Marr (Gloucester).  John Murphy (Kent).  Chirag Naik (Burgundy/Curan).  Declan O'Reilly (Albany).  Andrea Rankin (Cordelia).  Colleen Wheeler (Goneril).  


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