As I sit down to write this review, I remember the gut wrenching howl rising from the depths of a human soul as an old man staggers forward carrying his dead daughter. I begin to shake again, and I can barely keep it together. I suspect I am not alone in this response. As the curtain fell on Antoni Cimolino’s production of King Lear, there wasn’t a person in the audience who wasn’t completely overcome. We wept, even as we roared to our feet to give this production a standing ovation. As people filed out of the auditorium in a daze, you could turn around and see grown men and women bent double in their seats, wives comforting husbands, adult children embracing their elderly parents. We were all suddenly rendered inchoate and human. This production, in all its bare, forked minimalism, is the very essence of the Bard’s profound humanism. And as far as Shakespeare performance goes, it is “the thing itself.”
Cimolino reminds us that Shakespeare performance requires only the essentials – a command of the Jacobean stage, astute sound and lighting design, absolutely minimal props, and a stellar cast. As the artistic director of the Stratford Festival, Cimolino understands his audience and his stage. Having successfully recuperated Stratford’s oevre from the over-exuberant antics of Des McAnuff, he has brought back carefully chosen repertoire that can appeal to both the connoisseur and the plebian. Packed theaters and consistently high ratings are ample proof of his canny ability to give North American audiences the kind of theater experience they expect. But this afternoon’s production of King Lear also stands as a testament to Cimolino’s subtle and intensely assured status as both director and dramaturge.
Cimolino’s King Lear is as close a rendering of a conventional Jacobean tragedy as is imaginable, and yet, it is also in its form and approach, profoundly contemporary. With great theatrical works, it is difficult to evoke a sense of the new, of the undiscovered, and yet that is precisely what happens when, exposed to the raging storm, and surrounded by the mad and destitute, Lear lifts his face into a brief flash of light and exclaims, “I have ta’en/ Too little care of this.” In this moment, we do not simply respond to the psychological revelations of an aging monarch, but we face with sharp surprise, our own precarious circumstances in a world seesawing between economic collapse, failing social systems, and war; a world overburdened by the aftermath of triumphalist baby boomer philosophies and yet desperately trapped into providing for an aging population that refuses to face its own mortality.
As Lear, Colm Feore establishes himself within the ranks of the greatest of the great. His brief, volcanic descents into senility always appear as episodes of a mind unravelling with age, and what makes these lapses all the more powerful is his return to a witty, urbane majesty that is clearly Lear’s natural self. We understand why this aging man ruled a great nation, and why he commands the unswerving loyalty of his men. He is, in every sense, a king, and thus his fall all the greater. He is, simultaneously, the very essence of human nobility, and its terrifying reversal into bare nothingness. How Feore can take the stage day after day and deliver this performance defeats imagining; as an audience member, I still start shaking and am overcome with tears as I recall moments in his performance. But Feore is not alone in delivering an outstanding performance. Stephen Ouimette, as the Fool, gives the performance of a lifetime, matching Lear’s tour de force with a harrowingly human portrayal of aging wit and desperate wisdom. Maev Beaty’s performance as Goneril felt akin to a tornado touching down in our midst as she gathered force with deathly intent in order to explode in Act 4. To single out these performances is not to suggest that the rest were lacking. Every single character in this production delivered their roles with complete conviction. Even the tiniest, silent bit part managed to speak through a broken glance, or barely perceptible shiver, and through these players we saw our fathers, our husbands, our sisters, our children.
Stratford Festival’s King Lear is, quite simply, the best Shakespeare I have seen in two decades. And as only the very best theater can, it will mark you, most profoundly.