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L to R: Peter Haworth (Lear), Gabriella Gadsby (Cordelia), Lydia Riding (Regan), Laura Hall (Goneril). Photo: Julie Le Gal.

Theatre Review: King Lear at The Gladstone—until 03.30.19

By Brian Carroll on March 24, 2019

3 hours including one 20-minute intermission

King Lear, like Solomon, divides his kingdom between his heirs. He chooses to do so before his death, to avoid civil war after his demise, and to retire before his mental powers diminish further. Unlike Solomon, Lear makes unwise choices, banishing his favourite and youngest daughter, Cordelia, in a fit of pique. Cordelia, like many young people, has not yet learned to express herself politically and effectively, unlike her elder sisters, Goneril and Regan. Lear takes her inarticulacy for lack of affection, splits her dowry between Goneril and Regan, and marries her off, penniless, to the King of France.

From his first moments on stage, Peter James Haworth embodies the kingly authority of Lear. With his military bearing, upright stature, sinewy muscles and long arms we can believe that, as a swordsman, Lear in his prime must have been a terror on the battlefield. He would have engendered fierce loyalty among his followers. Haworth’s tall presence commands the stage.

“Haworth’s forty years on Canadian stages… comes through in the way he elucidates Shakespeare’s text.”

From this pinnacle, Haworth’s performance of the mentally deteriorating King brings out the twists and turns of Lear’s downfall. Haworth’s forty years on Canadian stages, including Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra comes through in the way he elucidates Shakespeare’s text.

King Lear is often looked on as a bravura vehicle for the lead actor. But don’t just keep your eyes on Haworth. There are other estimable performances in this production.

Eleanor Crowder (Gloucester), Leah Cogan (Kent), Pierre Brault (the Fool), Peter Haworth (Lear), Phillip Merriman (Edgar). Photo: Julie Le Gal.

“Well known in Ottawa as a director, I’d like to see more of Crowder as an actor as well.”

For example, Eleanor Crowder gives Gloucester a dignity, power and presence that doesn’t often show up in other productions. When Lady Gloucester wields a sword, she’s well trained and means business. Because the scheming Edmund (Gabriel Schultz) fools his parent, Gloucester is often played as well-meaning dupe. But Edmund fools everyone. Crowder’s Gloucester has moxie. Woe betide her foes. This is one of the highlights of this production. Well known in Ottawa as a director, I’d like to see more of Crowder as an actor as well.

Leah Cogan as the loyal Kent (and the disguised Caius) dominates the stage as necessary, while yielding to other actors when called for by the script. Her Kent/Caius is a force of nature, reigned in only by her devotion to Lear. Appropriately, Kent is the only character with the chutzpah to stand up to Lear when he is in error. Cogan has a backbone of steel when she stands up to Haworth’s towering authority as Lear.

Pierre Brault may be typecast as The Fool, but his performance is one of the best Fools I’ve seen in King Lear. Brault’s pairing of actions to text are brilliant, and many of them appear (to me at least) to be original. His gestures illuminate the text and his comedic timing is impeccable.

“[Pierre Brault’s] performance is one of the best Fools I’ve seen in King Lear.”

Gabriel Schultz’s (Edmund) charming and sociopathic manipulation of all around him is completely believable, if morally abhorrent. His magnetic appeal to Goneril and Regan is understandable, both in terms of their lust and their drive for power. We, the audience, can’t take our eyes off of him, even as he makes our skin crawl.

Goneril’s servant Oswald can be a cypher in productions of King Lear. But Ray Besharah shows that there are no small parts. His performance as Oswald is deliciously slimy.

Fight directors Chris McLeod and John Brogan deserve kudos for the many rousing fight scenes. Four characters die by the sword on stage, and Caius/Kent bests Oswald twice. Well done.

I have already praised Haworth’s acting as Lear. But I have mixed reactions to his direction of this production.

I applaud Haworth’s direction and cross-gender casting of Cogan and Crowder as Kent and Gloucester. He brings out the two actors’ strengths in these important roles. Similarly, he has elicited the admirable performances I’ve praised above.

L to R: Peter Haworth (Lear), Gabriella Gadsby (Cordelia), Lydia Riding (Regan), Laura Hall (Goneril). Photo: Julie Le Gal.

However, I found his directorial choices for Goneril (Laura Hall) and Regan (Lydia Riding) to be a missed opportunity. They appear curiously weak, rather than the vipers they truly are. For example, unlike Monique Mojica (Goneril) and Tantoo Cardinal (Regan) in NAC English Theatre’s Death of a Chief, I’m not convinced that this Goneril has the jealousy to resort to murder, or that Regan has the cold-bloodedness to resort to torture. They want to be queen. But in this production, this is difficult to believe.

In a similar vein, the relationship between this Regan and her husband Cornwall (Nicholas Dave Amott) is a mystery to me. Does she share Cornwall’s viciousness? Or does her cruelty spring forth sui generis? After Cornwall’s death, we know Regan’s feelings for Edmund, but what does she feel for Cornwall while he is still alive? In other productions there have been sexual sparks between Regan and Cornwall. Not in this one.

With 15 actors on stage, there’s a lot for a director to pay attention to in this production. Some actors, like Crowder, react to the action on stage, even though they are not the centre of audience attention. But often, Haworth allows minor characters to stand like chess pieces, evincing no reactions to the events before us.

Music director, Rachel Eugster, enriches the play and moves the plot forward with the songs of The Fool and Poor Tom. She brings out the best of Brault’s and Phillip Merriman’s (Edgar/Poor Tom) voices, filling the hall with the rich warm projection and diction. Their singing touches the heart.

I wish I could say the same of the wordless cast interpretation of Movement IX of John Micah Walter’s Vespers during the long introduction and some scene changes. It slowed the already long production and the harmonies seemed unintentionally discordant. Why is it here?

In conclusion, this is a serviceable King Lear, with several examples of brilliant acting. If you are a fan of Haworth, Crowder, Cogan, Brault, Schulz or Besharah, you should consider seeing their fine performances. But this is not the definitive production of King Lear. In the end, the opening night crowd left the theatre with no outward signs of excitement.

King Lear by Bear and Company is playing at the Gladstone Theatre (910 Gladstone Ave) until Saturday March 30. Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm. Matinees Saturdays and Sunday at 2:30pm. Special discount matinee Wednesday, March 27 at 11am. Adult tickets are $39 (including HST). Senior tickets are $35. Student/Artist/Unwaged tickets are $23. Tickets are available online or at the box office (613) 233-4523.