Review: KING LEAR at the Stratford Festival is a Visually Stunning and Excellently Performed Night at the Theatre

Director Kimberley Rampersad's creative vision brings new life to the classic play.

By: Jun. 01, 2023
Review: KING LEAR at the Stratford Festival is a Visually Stunning and Excellently Performed Night at the Theatre

You could feel the excitement stir in the audience from the moment the Stratford Festival’s Opening Night production of KING LEAR began on Tuesday evening. Orchestrations by Sean Mayes immediately set the tone as the audience visibly leaned forward in anticipation at the booming sound of timpani drums. Many an audience member remained leaning forward all night. Director, Kimberley Rampersad’s production - starring Paul Gross in the titular role - moved swiftly with excitement and intention towards its tragic end, keeping a firm hold on the audience the entire way.

Earlier in May, Rampersad shared with BWW that she had chosen to set this production in the not too distant future, after some unnamed event had occurred that took society back to a simpler, analog time. An intriguing concept, resulting in captivating set, costume, and lighting design by Judith Bowden, Michelle Bohn, and Chris Malkowski respectively.

The set consists of multiple dark pillars from floor to ceiling. Almost elevator-like sliding doors - also lined with lights - add to the almost dystopian setting. There are moments in this play involving this set, as well as additional effects, that are nothing short of visually stunning. Each of these moments is earned, as they cleverly weave additional metaphor into the Lear’s descent into madness.

Bohn’s costumes are a fascinating combination of classic and futuristic. The costumes are an excellent entry point into not only the world this production takes place in, but also to the characters themselves. Each character’s costume very much feels like an extension of their identity. It is well established in this play that Lear and Edgar undergo a transformation involving their attire – one to parallel the former’s mental decline and the other as a disguise – but in this production we also see transformations in attire of Lear’s eldest daughters Goneril (Shannon Taylor) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green). As these characters strive for more independence, their attire becomes more unique, functional, and futuristic.

This Lear is a sympathetic character – even in his worst moments, because of the humanity Paul Gross brings to him. Whether you relate to him directly or he reminds you of an aging or unwell loved one in your life, Gross’ Lear never feels simply like a tragic figure and instead, in the best possible way, just feels like a person. Gross takes us on a journey of fear, anger, ugliness, despair, and humour too. The rigidity in Lear’s thinking early in the play is quite possibly not simply a character flaw, but in fact perhaps the first actual sign of his mental decline. Lear’s consistent fear of going mad is a sign that he is aware of this. A subtle, yet effective way this is represented, is in the way Lear yields his pointer stick in an early scene. From pointing at territory on a map that he wishes to give his daughters, to pointing the stick like a conductor expecting his daughters to essentially perform for him, to slapping his own leg in anger – this pointer stick represents a level of control that he feels entitled to and that he is desperately seeking to maintain. David W. Keeley’s Kent then snatching the stick and snapping it in half, is a sharp bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come.

The entire company is strong. Michael Blake’s performance as Edmund will be remembered for years to come. Edmund’s natural charm and practiced confidence - spurred on by a hidden insecurity and a longing to be 'legitimate', is captured so brilliantly in every scene Blake is in. His schemey asides to the audience are deliciously honest and he can convey everything he needs to with a shrug or a sigh.

As Edmund’s ‘legitimate’ brother Edgar, who disguises himself as ‘Poor Tom,’ André Sills is excellent. He brings humour, passion, and an element of unpredictability to his scenes with Blake, Gross, and Anthony Santiago - who plays the Earl of Gloucester.

When BWW spoke with Rampersad, she mentioned that she was very protective of the scenes involving Lear’s daughters. Inevitably, some of the play needs to be cut due to time constraints, and it was important to Rampersad that those cuts not all go to the few female characters included in the text of this play. The presence of Goneril and Regan is absolutely felt more strongly here than in past productions this writer has seen. Taylor and Dixon-Green rise to this occasion and provide fully fleshed out, nuanced characters. These characters may have a common goal and take similar actions to take what’s theirs, but as the play goes on, we see key differences in their temperaments. Taylor’s Goneril literally vibrates with rage as she is being berated by her father whilst Dixon-Green vibrates on a completely different frequency as she approaches the torture of Gloucester with delight. Tara Sky's heartbreaking performance as the honest and steadfast Cordelia is beautiful.

Gordon Patrick White is yet another scene-stealer as Lear’s loyal and wise fool.

With strong pacing, visually stunning moments, and stellar performances all around, this production of  KING LEAR is sure to be a highlight of many a day trip to the Stratford Festival this season.

KING LEAR continues in Repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 29th.

Photo Credit: David Hou



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