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King Lear
Play summary | Globe and Mail review

Festival Theatre
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Miller

From the program:

"Nothing will come of nothing," says King Lear when his youngest and best-loved daughter refuses to "heave her heart into her mouth." Yet each of the main characters, variously reduced to nothing in the course of this unflinchingly bleak play, discovers how much there is to learn by losing everything. Forced by his own careless folly to feel for the first time "what wretches feel," Lear reconciles himself to the fact that, without the robes and rituals of monarchy, a king is little more than "a poor, bare, fork'd animal."

The Globe and Mail's review:

A king worth his salt
Monday, August 26, 2002 Print Edition, Page R1

Rating: ***

From its very first moments, as the villain Edmund quietly takes his place in the shadows, Jonathan Miller's King Lear announces itself as a finely detailed and intelligent production. And from his very first moments, casting a sharp eye over the map he has tidily unfurled, Christopher Plummer announces himself as an actor masterfully in control of the title role as the Canadian-born star of Hollywood and Broadway returns to his Stratford roots.

Yet from the opening of its second half, as Lear rages less than impressively at a storm carefully orchestrated so that it will not drown out his words, it is also clear that the production that opened Saturday will not achieve greatness. It is a subtle creation, and in the end it is not subtlety one requires from King Lear.

Working for the first time at Stratford and on the famous thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, the veteran British director Miller imports a clarity of both staging and performance that are all too often lacking in these parts. But for the occasional chair or table, the stage is completely bare.

It is the richly evocative 16th-century costumes created by British designer Clare Mitchell that visually establish the gap between a deceitful gorgeousness and a barren honesty -- and very unusually set the play in the politically anxious period in which it was written rather than in some barbaric medieval past. Lear wears a great robe of gold and dark red; Goneril and Regan are outfitted with the wide skirts, huge lace collars and increasingly elaborate hairdos of Jacobean court dress while Cordelia is more puritanically clad in a pale and fragile blue.

Miller, instilling a precision and rigour in his cast that is greatly refreshing to see reinstated in the Stratford company, fills in all the details of the relationships. With a nod or a hand, a raised eyebrow, a tut-tut or a harrumph, the actors embellish a crystalline delivery of the text with a physical performance of the subtext. It's an approach that can expose the irony of the lines to the point of humour. Without ever unbalancing the tragedy, Maurice Godin's lively Edmund, in particular, gets many laughs for the character's knowing revelation of his outrageous machinations.

Mainly, it is direction that brings understanding. Plummer's Lear jokingly but impotently pummels his Fool with his fists, revealing the King's affection and his own foolishness in a gesture, while Barry MacGregor's Fool, so magnificently heartbroken by his own wisdom, reaches equally ineffectual hands toward Sarah McVie's dour Cordelia. Domini Blythe's excellent Goneril is poisoned by self-righteous anger against her aging father. As Regan, Lucy Peacock effectively creates a lower sort than her sister: a petulant hypocrite animated mainly by schadenfreude. They reveal themselves as dangerously proud women while Plummer's bad-tempered old man shows us from where they inherited the trait.

Theirs is portrayed here as a very natural family, yet this carefully observed setting does not do justice to the pathos of the play. The scene of Gloucester's blinding is performed with quiet horror rather than bloody grotesque: The wise Miller sees no need to underline the sadism. Stephen Russell's rigidly haughty Duke of Cornwall and Peacock's malicious Regan make the action explicit as the abuse of an addictive power. But Miller has not succeeded in freeing James Blendick from his stock of jowl-jiggling mannerisms, and his shaking, groping version of the blind Gloucester is obvious rather than moving, despite the suitably pathetic presence of Evan Buliung as his good son Edgar disguised as the naked and raving Poor Tom.

Plummer, meanwhile, takes Lear very slowly toward his madness. He charts the progress logically and resolutely, revealing how anger first unsettles his reason and how impotence then destroys it. Yet finally, in eschewing histrionics, he produces too charming and vivacious a madman to achieve sufficient poignancy as he pokes bitter fun at Gloucester's blindness or brings Goneril and Regan to mock trial. And now, the flatness of McVie's Cordelia, so effective in relaying her honesty in the first scene, dilutes the sentiment of their reunion.

In the end, Miller does not ask Plummer to carry the hanged Cordelia on stage but, perhaps to spare the actor's back, shows him dragging her in a sheet, a piece of staging that's anticlimatic. There is excellence here, but there is also some compromise that makes this a dry-eyed Lear.

King Lear runs until Nov. 6 at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont. For information: 1-800-567-1600.

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