In collaboration with Theatre Calgary, the starring role of Lear has been secured by the revered Benedict Campbell. Over two decades ago, his father, Douglas Campbell, played the king at the same venue, while his step-brother Torquil was the King’s Fool.
Having such famous family ties to a show may be daunting to some actors but director Denis Garnhum emphasizes that his version is devoted to the relationship of family. King Lear is doubtless a colossal tragedy, with a final body count (10) that slightly bests Hamlet’s (nine), with plenty of onstage gore.
Nonetheless, Garnhum has chosen to focus on the human connections within the play – blood ties, parental bonds, filial debts, personal loyalties – rather than the larger themes of justice and chaos. In the latter, he allows viewers to make judgement as the brutality of the play speaks for itself.
Considered amongst Shakespeare’s finest works (if not his masterpiece), King Lear is a complicated play, chock full of emotional extremes, brisk wordplay, and savage acts of betrayal. Aging and vain, Lear wants to shed the burden to rule while still enjoying the power and privilege afforded by the title of King. Talk about starting with a misguided goal! To achieve this, he decides to divide his British kingdom amongst his three daughters and have each take care of him in turn.
Brilliant resolution, right? What daughter wouldn’t want dear old dad piddling around the castle, criticizing her every move?
Equally sensible is how Lear determines how to divide the kingdom: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.49). In other words, “Which one of you can flatter me best?”
While the two older daughters, Goneril (Colleen Wheeler) and Regan (Jennifer Lines), proceed to profess adulation, his beloved Cordelia (Andrea Rankin) refuses to play the dishonesty game. Whether as a result of her impudent youth and inexperience or of true virtue, Cordelia sets loose the wheels of chaos.
In a rage befitting a king but with the rationality of a madman, Lear banishes his most loyal subjects: his youngest daughter and his devoted advisor, the Earl of Kent (John Murphy). But families quarrel; all will be OK, right? Not so. The noble king eventually transforms into a madman as he discovers betrayal is the only gratitude awaiting him from those he trusted.
In a parallel subplot, the king’s old chum, the Earl of Gloucester (David Marr) is being conspired against by his bastard son, Edmund (Michael Blake). Edmund craves legitimate fame by any illegitimate means necessary. Thus, he also convinces the short-sighted Gloucester that his dutiful son, Edgar is plotting to murder him.
As the two anguished fathers roam the countryside, Edmund unites with Lear’s elder daughters to gain ultimate power. Meanwhile, Cordelia has married the King of France and is marching an army towards Britain to rescue her father. Family feuding at its finest!
Theatre-goers who enjoy the look and feel of Shakespeare as it might have been performed in the Globe Theatre during the Elizabethan era will be pleased with this effort. Pam Johnson’s minimalist set allows the audience to focus on the magnificent performances as they unfold.
Multi-levels of aged wooden beams are enhanced with movable furniture, tapestries or vegetation to alter the scenery.
Astute choices by lighting director Gerald King transform the stage into a furious storm during Lear’s flight and a lattice of golden crosses during Edgar’s soliloquy.
Deitra Kalyn’s sumptuous Elizabethan style costumes make use of glorious autumn colours during the first acts, then purposely faded into winter hues as the kingdom spirals into decline. Slight improvements could be made to the audio system as some dialogue was hard to hear over the heady music (Dave Pierce) or typical noises surrounding an outdoor venue.
[Jennifer Lines, Benedict Campbell, Colleen Wheeler]
The two sisters, played by Colleen Wheeler and Jennifer Lines, are one of two dynamic duos to watch for. They slink in unison like forceful energy waves of evil – insatiable and unyielding. Their inner malignancy becomes more grotesque though their outer garments become more beautiful. However, at times it was difficult to hear the poisonous lines delivered by Wheeler. Not sure if slowing the speeches may reduce the tones of distain, or whether she was actually trying to emulate the effect of one long venomous hiss.
David Marr’s multi-layered Gloucester is a feat that only a seasoned actor can pull off. He is a veritable sot for Edmund’s ruse, a noble friend to the downtrodden Lear and a penitent beggar in Edgar’s arms. Poor Gloucester meets a dignified end rather than a piteous fade-out.
[L to R: Scott Bellis, Benedict Campbell; Benedict Campbell]
The other potent duo is Lear and his Fool, played by Scott Bellis. Campbell’s visceral performance is, without doubt, majestic, gripping and rousing to the senses, able to convey a hundred emotions with the raise of a single eyebrow. Campbell gesticulates and staggers like a madman yet struts and bellows like a royal. However, at times, Bellis’ nimble Fool seems to outshine all on and off stage. His frivolous jokes and ludicrous exchanges with the King mask terrible truths for the averse ear of Lear and supply the most revealing and gratifying scenes in the play.
Bellis’ extreme melancholy paired with stinging sarcasm temper Lear’s delirious railings against injustice. In an eerie snippet of stage direction, Bellis floats like a ghost off the stage and disappears silently away through the audience. This movement foreshadows the hopelessness of the impending fate to follow.
Although King Lear is a long and arduous play to digest, Shakespeare’s rich expressions and fine performances make this show gratifying to sit through. Hopefully you’ll depart with an appreciation that your family is nothing like Lear’s! King Lear runs through September 20.
Photos by David Blue.