Thursday, June 19, 2008

King Lear review

My review of Bard on the Beach's King Lear appears in this week's WestEnder. Pick up a copy to see the lovely full page layout!

King Lear review
By Andrea Warner
502 words

This ain’t your high school English class’s King Lear. This is your liberal arts college re-imagining King Lear as part comedy, part musical, and part morality tale to show everyone how daringly innovative they are. Get it?

King Lear isn’t the most complex of Shakespeare’s works, but the web of familial deception still packs plenty of modern punch. King Lear banishes the only daughter who truly loves him, Cordelia, because she fails to kiss his ass the way his other daughters, Goneril and Regan, do. Meanwhile, Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, schemes to turn his brother and father against one and other. Everyone’s evil plans unravel in a series of bloody confrontations that come like puncture wounds throughout the last few minutes of the first half and the entire second half.

The story has stayed the same, but Bard on the Beach’s updates to the bloody tragedy take wild liberties that mess with the audience’s expectations, and the results are alternately frustrating and fantastic.

This Lear is a twisted relic, swimming in a wheelchair and a grandfatherly cardigan, his mind starting to corrupt memory and reality as he succumbs to advancing Alzheimer’s.

This Lear’s first half is infused with so much dark humour, sight gags, and laugh-out-loud moments, it feels more like a night at Yuk Yuks than an evening of Shakespeare.

This Lear has a song in his heart and back-up musicians to boot.

Plenty of director James Fagan Tait’s risks work, largely because the cast is an accomplished crew of established and new faces. Robert Moloney (The Glass Menagerie) infuses Edmund with lots of devilish charm, and is a wry and wonderful presence even at his most fiendish. Patti Allen has plenty of bite and sass as Nurse, the only one who seems to be able to tell King Lear the truth. And, Christopher Gaze is given wide range to zigzag powerfully between Lear’s lucid triumphant moments and his descent inside his own crumbling mind.

The cast is also tasked with singing, playing instruments, and providing sound effects like the devastating storm that forces Lear to seek refuge in a hovel. The singing is best reserved for comedic effect, and works fairly well throughout the first act. The second act packs more emotionally turbulent material, and the songs feel heavy-handed. They prove an unfortunate distraction from the actual acting and dialogue.

This is King Lear’s real triumph, and it’s hundreds of years old: language. The insults Lear spits at his daughters are vicious, visceral, and funny. His revelations feel as fresh today as they did then, particularly when he realizes the lip service he was paid throughout his life, admitting ruefully, “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie.” The lessons Lear learns come late in life and are perched atop an incredibly high body count.

Though it earns high marks for innovation, this production doesn’t quite make the grade in effectiveness. Ultimately, this Lear is less a King and more a Prince.

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