2007 Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario
He enters down the theater’s center aisle, his resplendent golden robe trailing behind him. On his arm is Cordelia, the favorite of his three daughters. He is the demanding Lear, “every inch a king.” Later, when shorn of the trappings of office, he is a naked, “unaccommodated man” who has lost nearly everything, including his sanity and his cloak of civilization.
Thus begins Shakespeare’s greatest, darkest, most profound, most dreadful tragedy. As played and directed by Brian Bedford, the spare, scenery-less production is at once the centerpiece of the Stratford Festival and a triumphant exercise in the power of nothingness.
Bedford, noted for his comic characters, brings amiability to the play’s start that not only makes Lear a rounded figure but makes his downfall all the more pitiful. Here is a man who stubbornly says, “This heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws or e’er I’ll weep,” before eventually realizing that being human means weeping as well as laughing.
Bedford so humanizes the man that Lear’s eventual conversion to love wells up from his being, having lain dormant in him. The tragedy is it comes too late.
“Who can tell me who I am?” Lear asks, a question that reverberates throughout the evening. When Bedford sits on the throne, he moves to its left side, unsure of his position, acknowledging the emptiness of a lonely soul.
This is a Lear towering over his subjects and his daughters more because of his title as king than his understanding as a human being. More petulant than stormy, he must be a “poor, infirm, weak and despised old man” before he can become a “foolish, fond” one who learns empathy for the world’s unfortunates.
At the end, when Lear cries, “And my poor fool is hanged,” asking help to unbutton his cloak and unburden himself of mortality, Bedford seems to be crying for us all. As the lights increase in intensity, his “Look there, look there” is directed not at Cordelia but straight ahead into the void, as if catching a glimpse of eternity.
Although he is at its center, Bedford is not the whole show. Bernard Hopkins’ unsentimental but wise Fool, Peter Donaldson’s strong-willed Kent, Scott Wentworth’s noble, compassionate Kent and Ron Kennell’s scheming steward also reinforce this production’s emphasis on man’s striving to assert his human need for love and companionship in an indifferent, even hostile universe.
“The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead”
Visitors with time to attend the festival’s main attraction, “King Lear,” and only one other offering must see this striking one-woman play (although tickets are scarce). A hit last year and a hit all over again, Australian writer Robert Hewett’s work is, by turns, touching, funny and altogether shattering. Under the precise direction of Geordie Johnson, the marvelously versatile Lucy Peacock enacts the eponymous women plus four other characters, including the cocky husband whose philandering gets the action in gear. Peacock’s changing wigs and clothes in silhouette allows the audience to journey with her to the revelation that “Innocence is the province of the very young and the very old. Naïveté can last a lifetime.” Look for this one on or off Broadway soon. It’s terrific.
“My One and Only”
It’s style over substance for the remounting of this 1983 Broadway musical. With a libretto so slight it practically vanishes before your eyes, the production is notable for its exciting wall-to-wall tap dancing (courtesy choreographer/director Michael Lichtefeld) and great Gershwin tunes like “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” “He Loves and She Loves,” “’S Wonderful,” “Funny Face,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and the title tune. It’s colorful, fast-paced and deliriously inconsequential.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece may not seem quite as revolutionary as it did back in 1943, but it’s still one of the warmest, most tuneful and rousing musical comedies in the canon. This revival takes full advantage of the festival stage to create a swirling, expansive atmosphere. Not everything works: director/choreographer Donna Feore’s dream ballet is flaccid (although her “Farmer and the Cowman” dance is vivacious) and some of the performances are merely adequate. But Nora McLellan’s Aunt Eller, Jonathan Ellul’s Ali Hakim and David W. Keeley’s poignant Jud Fry are just right, as are the scenery, costumes and lighting. It’s A-OK, by gum.
Villains are usually more fascinating than heroes. And so it is with the evil Iago who stirs the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy in the too-trusting Othello. But this battle of wills needs to be joined by two titans: one is not enough. Yet one is all we get in this production. While Jonathan Goad is a sly, subversive, sensuous, passionate Iago, Philip Akin is a flat, non-heroic, weak, mundane Othello. Besides Goad, the best work is done by Peter Hannan (music), John Stead (fights) and the indomitable Lucy Peacock as a fiery Emilia.
Just what did Shakespeare mean by leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway, only his “second best bed”? Further, why was he such a stranger in Stratford that his having fathered any kids at all, let alone three, is a wonder? As envisioned by playwright Vern Thiessen, the legacy in his last will and testament was revenge for a life of pain and especially Anne’s neglect of their son Hamnet. In this one-woman play, Seana McKenna is Anne, pondering questions and defending herself. Despite her vigor, however, the work comes to life only in its final moments.
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
As dramatized by Christopher Sergel, Harper Lee’s classic story of justice and childhood remains a moving and stirring tale. Although the stage version is less evocative than the superb Gregory Peck film, it proves, yet again, that courtroom battles are inherently dramatic. Going beyond the trial of a black man accused of rape, this lyrical coming-of-age story is an enduring American classic. Only the use of an intrusive narrator mars the evening.
-- David A. Rosenberg
August 18, 2007