REVIEW: King Lear at the Stratford Festival

Photo by David Hou

Paul Gross is excellent.

Forgive me, yes, he’s engrossing.

For many, that’ll be the whole review right there, the justification for folks to head to Stratford and see their film and TV hero shine brightly at the centre of a meaty Shakespearean drama. Gross feasts on the Bard’s prose for all its worth, ably mining the shadowy depths of King Lear’s descent into madness.

The rest of Stratford’s Lear isn’t bad either, with some lovely performances and aesthetic flourishes. Director Kimberley Rampersad pursues a dark and desolate visual identity for the sprawling work, featuring a set by Judith Bowden that’s all harsh edges and black paint, a fittingly hopeless landscape for a king becoming untethered from his kingdom. 

Much of Chris Malkowski’s lighting is oppressively white, kitting out the set in thin strips of fluorescent glow and bringing a sort of futuristic dire to the brutal shapes of Bowden’s topography. Meanwhile, Michelle Bohn’s costumes mix past and present styles to occasional success — though the men’s clothes generally feel more cohesive and thoughtful than the women’s — but when the mixing of eras works, the technique suggests a timelessness to Shakespeare’s ever-relevant text.

Some visual moments breathe just a hint of whimsy into the otherwise deathly serious production — a deluge of tiny plastic balls to suggest rain, for instance — and Rampersad makes smart use of that dark, dark set, which reveals itself to be increasingly modular as the play progresses.

But Lear’s no Lear without the humans at the centre of the play.

The trio of pained sisters are all in fine form here, particularly Shannon Taylor’s relentlessly ambitious Goneril. Déjah Dixon-Green’s Regan and Taylor are talented on their own but unstoppable together, each nurturing the heartlessness necessary to kill their father (and undermine each other) while Tara Sky’s wide-eyed Cordelia watches carefully from the sidelines, waiting for the perfect moment to act.

And the side characters, too, are excellent, with Stratford favourites like Andre Sills doing what they do best — fleshing out subplots with levity and wit, but never upstaging the central action. Sills’ Edgar is winningly complex and airy, pairing well with Michael Blake’s simmering Edmund, the bastard son in search of legitimacy. Anthony Santiago’s Gloucester, too, is a standout, and Rampersad’s stretched out the eye-gouging scene with toe-curling gurgles and plops.

This is a meaty Lear with surprising bouts of humour, but it’s hard not to feel a little Lear’d out, if I’m being honest. Soulpepper presented a wonderful production of the play last year, with an astonishing cast and a companion play, Queen Goneril, to temper some of the misogyny of Shakespeare’s opus. Add to that the recent (and excellent) conclusion of HBO’s Succession, perhaps the best Lear-suggested media in recent history, and you may find a large portion of Toronto-based audiences feeling weary of this story and its drudgery. 

And while Stratford’s King Lear is refreshingly efficient, swishing in just under three hours (an impressively short run time for this play!), I almost wish Rampersad had luxuriated a little more, finding pauses to percuss against the velvety language and tangle of subplots. Much of the production hurtles forward at a breakneck pace, and for me, words got lost, particularly when actors were facing upstage, their lines garbling against the set. While the Festival Theatre can feel surprisingly intimate from the lower-level seats, I was surprised at the extent I struggled to make out text, as if watching from a great distance — I fear what might be lost further back.

Look, if you love Lear as a text, or Gross as an actor, this production will likely be a winner for you — even more so if you missed Soulpepper’s duo of Lear plays last year. Otherwise, there might be other Shakespeares (or the intensely wonderful Casey and Diana) to check out at the festival this year.

King Lear plays at the Stratford Festival through October 29. Tickets are available here.

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4 Responses to “REVIEW: King Lear at the Stratford Festival”

  1. Wonderful review! Glad you mentioned sound. I was 5 rows back and still mourned for better ability to understand the dialogue, and wondered whether it would be a good thing to break with tradition and perhaps mic the actors. My favourite performances were Edward, the Fool -whose surefooted animations I always admire of this role- and of course, Lear. Of the sisters, Goneril was a standout for me.

  2. Just returned from Stratford and found this site! I am in agreement that the actors’ diction could have been easier to ascertain with a mic … and at a less than “breakneck speed”, as you wrote. Although I loved Goneril’s outfits as fashion choices, I found them inconsistent with the period of the play, and inconsistent with all of the other characters’ costumes.

  3. Agreed on all counts! We saw this last night from first row balcony and had difficultly hearing some the actors. Speed was also an issue as they raced through some beautiful speeches. But Paul Gross was amazing and one of the best Lears I’ve seen in awhile. Regan and Goneril were very well played as well. Great production all around.

  4. Sound and hearing the dialogue is often a problem in this theatre and in the Tom Patterson. Perhaps the director doesn’t realize that the audience is missing so much of the dialogue, because they know it so well. I have found this to be a problem in theatre in general recently. I suggest, if the actors are not taught or directed to project (to the last row), that they should be miked. Thank you.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is former president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.