Bard on the Beach’s King Lear surprises and challenges audiences’ perceptions of familial dynamics, outcomes, and politics.
A riveting story of love, betrayal and the complexity of human relationships presented at the 26th season of the Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver.
A British King and his three daughters; his trusted advisor; his dear friend and two sons; a Fool; (aren’t we all sometimes in matters of the heart and politics) all enveloped in a timeless story of love, betrayal and redemption.
Act one sets the story of how a fanciful and vainglorious King, in the final stage of life decides to divide his kingdom between his daughters based on how much each will woo and flatter him to secure land, wealth and power for themselves. His lack of wisdom and emotional maturity will set the stage for much destruction, including his own, his family, friends and kingdom. The ripple effect of one capricious act sets in motion an unending series of events with fatal consequences.
Querying somebody “Which of you we say doth love us most …” (Act 1, Scene 1) is an invitation to be manipulated by others when they have something great to gain and the story does not disappoint. What ensues from the two eldest scheming daughters; Goneril and Regan, competently played by Colleen Wheeler and Jennifer Lines; are carefully worded and meaningless professions of love such as Goneril’s speech to her father, who declares that she professes, “A love that makes … speech unable … Beyond all manner of so much I love you”. Her sister Regan, who is not as clever as her older sister, quickly declares she feels the same to secure her portion of lands.
Finally Cordelia, the youngest, stands before him in silence and declares she cannot “heave her heart into her mouth”. She refuses to follow her sisters’ duplicitous example to pander to the King. She is too honest to engage in such a profoundly misleading and impossible task. King Lear is furious and declares she’ll get nothing from him and banishes her from the Kingdom.
The stage production gives us an easily viewed area plainly decked out in rustic wood to allow the storyline to develop act by act. A clever use of lighting; heights and depths on the stage via stairs and gaps in the floor provide multiple levels on which each act takes place, lending coherence and imagination to the scenes. Plainness provides no distractions or softening of the brutality and cruelty inherent in the multiple acts of betrayal portrayed on stage.
The troupe works hard to present the themes and provide the visuals to push forward the storyline. Benedict Campbell gives a commendable performance as King Lear. He presents us with a vigorous, decisive King Lear on the verge of growing old, who foolishly decides to give away his power; setting the stage for the destruction of not only himself, but also his family, friends and kingdom. His trusted advisor, the Earl of Kent (played by John Murphy) tries to warn the King against the division multiple times, to no avail.
The Earl of Gloucester, (King Lear’s cherished friend) played by David Marr provides one of the most shocking scenes in the play when his eyes are gouged out, causing the audience to gasp and turn away. He too advances the storyline with a brisk and heartfelt delivery of his lines.
The least credible performance is Cordelia, played by Andrea Rankin, who seems too weak and soft spoken to play the heroine in the story. Cordelia, the catalyst for so much strife and courage, through first her honesty leading to disempowerment and then her selflessness towards her father, seems strangely passionless for such a profoundly courageous part.
In contrast, Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, played by Michael Blake, presents us with a carefully crafted and elegantly displayed, almost tongue in cheek example of dastardliness which he seems to revel in. There is no holding back in his performance at all. He clearly is a villain, through and through. And thoroughly enjoys it. His brother Edgar, played by Nathan Schmidt, is a good foil for his brother’s evil, though his lines do at times seem to meander rather aimlessly and become somewhat long winded.
This performance of King Lear continues to invite us to ponder on the meaning of family, relationships and power. He shows us how ordinary human beings can lose their way leading to disastrous consequences. He is a master storyteller and this, his most tragic tale, is one that continues to be played upon the world’s stage to this day. It’s a cautionary tale and we should take heed of the lessons offered.