Saturday, July 12, 2014

Lightening Strikes Majestic: Colm Feore's King Lear

Colm Feore as King Lear, at the Stratford Festival.

Colm Feore as King Lear is a force of nature. True, there is artistry behind a performance that ranks among the best of the Canadian actor's career – and given that he has previously played such a variety of roles, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Iago, Oberon, Macbeth and Fagin during his 17 seasons on the Stratford Festival stage, this is no small statement. Other grand men of Canada's theatre scene have worn the mantle of Shakespeare’s flawed and elderly monarch at Stratford over the past decade, among them Brian Bedford and Christopher Plummer whose 2002 performance of Lear a few seasons back was a tour de force, forever etched in memory. But believe it, Feore’s is just as powerful, if not that much better. His Lear, at the Festival Theatre now through Oct. 10, is human-sized, petty but also delicately perfumed with pathos: a King the people can truly relate to.

Distinguishing Feore from these actors who came before, besides his relative youthfulness (Plummer, now 84, and Bedford, now 79, are closer in age to the octogenarian King Lear than Feore who in August will celebrate his 56th birthday), is his approach to the text. When Plummer, for instance, played the role 11 years ago, he ripped like a craggy lion through his lines, tearing at them with a ferocity that belied his advanced years. The younger Feore, on the other hand, tends to ache his way through them, slowly and painfully, like a man dying in quick sand, aware of his imminent demise but impotent to do anything about it. It is a remarkable performance that rewards the audience richly, allowing them to experience Shakespeare's tragedy as if for the first time. Feore enunciates with the sonorous clarity of a church bell, giving life to every burnished word, even as he rages.

Sara Farb as Cordelia with Feore's Lear.
Rage is part and parcel of a play whose culminating words, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!,” are plaintively shouted by Lear upon discovering the death of his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Lear howls because love is now forever lost to him, and he howls because he realizes how utterly isolated and alone he is in the world –nothing but a poor, forked animal, stripped of all sophistries and all the other visible signs of meaning. This is existential Lear, reduced to bellowing like a wounded and helpless beast. In some productions, the raging can go overboard, drowning the text in hysterics. But here, as expressed by Feore, the raging is neither shrill nor disorienting, at least not to the point of obscuring its importance as a message sent to the living from one perched on the brink of the grave. Feore delivers his rages with sorrow blended with irony, presenting a Lear caught in the grips of a viral-like dementia. This approach produces a greater sense of awareness of the human tragedy at the heart of a play that fundamentally is about living and dying, but also about love and loss and regret, the squandering of responsibility, the deterioration of the mind in old age, the diminished value of honesty, integrity and honour, both the private and the public meanings of the word.

Director Antoni Cimolino must be credited here for encouraging Feore to create a monarch not so lofty or distant that his sufferings can't matter to us, watching at a remove in the dark. From behind the scenes, Cimolino guides Feore to play up the idea, presented early on in the play, that Lear is not a man guilty of deep thought. He acts first, the consequences be damned. His main act, the one that leads ultimately to the swell of death and destruction which besets his world, is to abdicate all responsibility as the divinely-appointed ruler of his land. At the start of the play, Lear makes clear that he has grown weary of the matters of state and simply wants to retire, enjoying his twilight years with nothing more taxing to do than sporting with his retinue, and being a man of leisure. He wants so desperately to enjoy himself that he smiles, laughs even, when initially faced with the indignities delivered against his agent, the fugitive Edgar (Evan Builung), the wronged son of Gloucester in disguise, presuming it to be a joke. But the joke is on Lear, and the king's ensuing awareness of this unravels his sanity.

Stephen Ouimette as the Fool.
Madness is a primary theme in King Lear, and Cimolino explores all its simmering complexities in a play about a world turned upside down and by the one meant to represent its stability. He gets Feore to take his time getting to the breaking point, showing the slow descent into madness as a culmination of aggravating incidents. When some of those stingers are removed, Lear is temporarily transformed from mad man to hopeful father. Abetted by designer Eo Sharp and Michael Walton's evocative lighting design, Cimolino presents this quasi-miracle scene – a kind of rebirth moment following the annihilation of Lear’s humanity out on the storm-ravaged heath – as a vision of white with Feore lying pale upon a divan. But, as any English major should be able to say without reviewing their SparkNotes, this resurrected Lear is not long for this world. His sins are just too great.

His biggest sin is wanting to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters. Eventually, he gives away the kingdom to just two of his daughters, Goneril (Maev Beaty) and Regan (Liisa Repo-Martell), after growing disgusted with the youngest daughter, Cordelia (Sara Farb) who refuses to flatter him as is his wish in order to obtain a percentage of his wealth. Unable, as she puts it to “heave my heart into my mouth,” she tells her father, “I love your majesty/According to my bond; no more nor less.” This is not what the vanity-prone Lear wants to hear, and his reaction is to revolt against the natural ties binding a parent to his child, banishing Cordelia from sight. It is a rash and terrible act that, at the same time, is within keeping of a man who already has torn asunder the moral bonds holding together his society at large. In Shakespeare’s time, it would have been understood that kingdoms were non-divisible. They were whole states, symbolic of political, and by extension, ethical, unity.

Lear is aware he is going against the rules. When he early on assembles his family and courtiers around him, he says he has come to reveal the “darker purpose” of wanting to divest himself of the obligation of being monarch. Once he allows that action to go through, then all the light is indeed sucked out of the world as he knows it. His lack of scruples soon begets a society where dishonesty reigns instead of right. The bastard Edmund (Brad Hodder), having no ties to virtue, initiates a rule of terror where his own father, Gloucester, (Scott Wentworth), is brutishly blinded, his brother exiled and a war against France is waged with Cordelia and Lear as the principle victims. Lear’s Fool (Stephen Ouimette) sees through the deceit right from the start. He tells Lear that, having given away his land, “I am better than thou art now; I am a fool,/thou art nothing.” But Lear pays no heed. He follows his instincts and not his better sense and for this he becomes both mad and disenfranchised, a man alone in the world without a compass with which to guide him.

He is crazy, in other words. But crazier would be to miss how he gets that way. Feore's lightening strikes of brilliant acting combined with Cimolino's velvet-glove direction make the madness compelling as well as deeply compassionate. Human nature unleashed.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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