It’d been 5 years since I last saw my favourite Shakespeare play live, and many years since I’d seen it done well. So I was more than excited to see Stratford’s current production, despite my whole-hearted belief that the company’s chosen leading man was at least 20 years too young (and a sprightly man to begin with). The show opened about two months ago and the word is in: Stratford’s 2014 King Lear starring Colm Feore is a certifiable hit. I’m not sure that should be true but I’m glad that people are liking Lear, at least, because it truly is one of humankind’s great achievements. But this particular production? It doesn’t feel like the best the company has to offer by a longshot.
It’s not that Antoni Cimolino’s production is bad. On the contrary, it glows with competency (and because of that flashy lighting design). The worst anyone (okay, just me, everyone else loved him) could say about Feore’s performance is that he is, in fact, far too young. But, while it sounds petty, I don’t think that’s a small complaint. Though he certainly fakes it better than expected, you can see Feore’s vitality clearly in the way he moves and his great, thundering moments lack the gravitas of a man digging deep to muster that kind of power. I did appreciate, however, that he doesn’t shy away from Lear’s dark side, allowing the king to be a demanding, petulant tyrant throughout the first few acts. It’s a choice well supported by the text yet rarely made despite how much more interesting it makes everything.
The most interesting result is said choice’s effect on the relative “goodness” of Lear’s daughters. At intermission, my date for the evening’s first comment was “I thought King Lear was about a sad old man and his evil daughters”, because it often is. Even with Feore’s brattier portrayal, this version might also have slipped into that old morality dynamic were it not for the standout performance of the lot- Maev Beaty as Goneril. In her first season at Stratford, one of Toronto’s most notable actresses is turning in some of the best performances of the season and it’s her Goneril that, for me, saved a fairly standard Lear from being so standard that it’s dull (except for Evan Buliung’s Edgar- he’s not dull, he’s just nuts*). It actually doesn’t seem all that revelatory on paper but what Beaty does is approach Goneril as something other than a villain. She starts off fairly well intentioned, flattering her father not just to steal his land but to appease his desperation to be loved. She grows darker throughout the play, obviously (there is a plot to adhere to, after all) but only when pushed. It’s a take on the character that completely opens up the experience of watching Lear, striking “am I a terrible daughter?” chords that Lear has never really struck with me before.
There are lots of technically excellent performances in King Lear– Jonathan Goad as Kent, Brad Hodder as Edmund, Sara Farb as Cordelia- and everything from the dull but beautiful period costumes to the dull but smart staging is dull but technically excellent. Maev Beaty is, thankfully and uniquely, more than that.
*In all fairness, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a truly satisfactory Edgar. He’s such a strange, inconsistent character that I’m still waiting for an actor to come along and make it all click.