Braving the bard’s storms

The fall major stages Lear with a gendered twist

Designer Robin Fisher’s costumes stood out against Lear’s bare, two-level set.
Designer Robin Fisher’s costumes stood out against Lear’s bare, two-level set.
Supplied photo by Tim Fort

In his famous lectures on Shakespearean tragedy, the scholar A.C. Bradley once said: “King Lear seems to me Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his greatest play.” It’s an undeniable masterpiece. A text containing incredible verbal possibility, humour, hardship, a myriad of themes but it’s also one big yawn.

For those of us who were forced to trudge painfully through the storms of Lear by our tweed-clad high school English teacher, Dr. Bradley’s observations are nothing new.

The Queen’s Drama Department has decided to wrestle with this mountain of a work, performing an adaptation by J.W. Fisher simply titled Lear.

Considering the history of such a play, this adaptation is bold, to say the least. In what would have, originally, been a testosterone overload—an all-male cast with all-male heroes—this reinterpretation boasts a newfound female dominance.

As the title implies, the character of Lear, the tragic king, seems to have dabbled in a bit of modern medicine with a convenient sex change. Now queenly, yet no less of a cogent force, the role has been taken up by Kat Sandler who is a sovereign success. Her performance makes the gender change seem natural—her instances of insanity are humourous and the tragedy of Cordelia’s death is heartfelt.

The title role is not the only significant character switch. Kent, a nobleman loyal to Lear, is played by Kristin Rodgerson. Her performance is admirable, and she deftly combines humour with the aggressive, or more masculine, side of the character.

The increased female presence in the production is an interesting addition to a play so consumed by the relationships between fathers and their children; there is added complexity, a broader scope and a multiplication of themes.

Add a 19 person cast to this gender-playing quagmire, and the result could be convoluted. However, a few wise casting decisions pull the audience through. Edmund (Danny Mahoney) and Edgar (Matthew Donovan) effectively express the dichotomy of good and evil in the play.

Mahoney is easily dislikable, shifting from weasely confessions to conniving soliloquies with ease, while Donovan, like all adept character actors, plays the multi-faceted character of Edgar with a spontaneous flare nuanced with subtle restraint.

The cast writhes through the dark plot, with all seriousness intended, and the tragic story follows like a royally-themed episode of Jerry Springer. Innocent children banished, parents betrayed, sisters fighting over men and brothers in arms.

Laced with an ominous, rhythmic and slightly scattered soundtrack, the mood is appropriately set throughout the production, yet the electronic music seems somewhat out of place among the simplicity of setting that is so prominent in this performance.

Playing out on a two-level set, the scenery is layered, barren and distressed. It provides opportunity to materialize the hierarchy so dominant in the plot, however obvious the symbolism may be (Lear beginning the play on the lofty heights of the stair case and finishing sprawled on the floor of the theatre space). Considering the size of the Rotunda Theatre, the set is quite large—an odd venue choice that doesn’t allow for much flexibility of scenery—and the association with nature seems to be lost in this setting.

The lighting effects attempt to negate this inflexibility and, for the most part, succeed. Lear’s storm is recreated with flashes of reds, oranges and blues—the elements of fire and rain pulsating as Lear slowly loses grip of his mental state—and the duality of characters and mood is subtly conveyed through smooth technique transitions.

Still, there is a limitation in the potential for spectacle. King Lear seems to be the Shakespeare play most accessible to special effects and extremes of scenery—a concept ignored in this production and replaced by a performance that could easily be transferred to the original Elizabethan stage.

Regardless of the simplicity of scenery, the costumes, designed by Dora-award winning designer Robin Fisher, are a visual wonder. Their dull grays, dust drenched layers and peasant-like monotony are fascinating. Although they could have done with more props—the short, stick swords seem to trivialize the violent duels and deaths—their creative composition is compelling.

This is the selling point of the production; the main source, aside from solid acting and nifty lighting, for audience appreciation. Lear seems to place too much emphasis on its monochromatic attire, succumbing to the dull greys of its costumes in a performance that will, despite a few scattered moments of captivating dramatics, lose itself in a lack of contrast and an all-too-narrow focus on the distressed.

The high contrast, constant interplay between the extremities of human nature, and binary nature of emotion is paramount in the text and forgotten in the performance. However well-calculated, efficient and purposeful this presentation may be, its sentiment is despair, despair, despair.

As J.W. Fisher claims in her director’s notes, this “is a world that is, ultimately, in a state of distress”, the conflict between young and old without end.

Quite fittingly, distress is all the young and old will feel after this production—a side effect that, although seemingly intended, may not be entirely needed.

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