I’d never seen KING LEAR before tonite. Do ya believe that? To be honest, tho, there’s plenty of theatre classix, Shakespeare included, that I’ve never partook in…and I hear I am, taking in my first of TWO Kings Lear in almost as many months. In May, the National Arts Centre will take their stab at it, which I’m sure will be FINE and all that….but tonight the good folks at GNAG theatre (aka the Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group, FYI) earned the right to shout FIRST! …you know, at least for this year.
And while I’ll admit to being a TOUCH hesitant about taking in a three hour rendition of one of the Bard’s most ponderous epics, by a community group I’d never even heard of no less, I was buoyed by a few important facts. One: The show was being directed by Eleanor Crowder, who is kind of a big noise in the local Shakespeare scene, recently of the Salamander Shakespeare company (soon to be making waves with her new gang, Bear and Company). Two: the intermission was licensed. Oh, GNAG, you do know the way to an aging sinner’s heart, you do.
The story, for those like me who have spent most of their lives avoiding culture, centers on titular and aging King Lear, who wants to divvy up his kingdom among his three daughters. Two of them fawn over him with false praise, and he showers them with land and titles. The third and most loving, Cordelia (Shakespeare was a Buffy fan? Cool!), refuses to give in to temptation and holds on to her dignity, keeping her love in her heart rather than her words. Then, in perhaps the most spectacular display of parental overreaction in fictional history, Lear disowns her for failing to tell him what a cool guy he is, and banishes his closest advisor for good measure. He…he doesn’t make the best of first impressions, our man Lear.
What follows is a…well, frankly, Shakespearean series of events involving a fool, a bastard, a madman (or is he..?), lots of messengers, a few untimely slayings and some cringeworthy eye-gouging. It’s likely one of Billy Shakes’ most daunting works, and props to the GNAG gang for tackling it, and pulling it off quite so nicely as well. Not all of the performances are great, but all ARE enthusiastic, which is just what you should hope for in an amateur production. And leading man Ron Hagglund cuts an imposing and booming Lear, never failing to command when he is on stage. Jennifer Hurd is appropriately angelic as the noble Cordelia, while Angela Perry and Reena Belford shine as her wicked sisters Goneril and Regan, who chew some impressive scenery as the show goes on.
Some of the other players in the byzantine plot do themselves proud also…Steve Gluck as framed hero Edgar, who disguises himself as gloriously mad ‘Poor Tom’, seems to be having great fun with the multitude of sides to his character. And Joel Westheimer as Edgar’s scheming brother Edmund the bastard, a villain after Blackadder’s own heart, cuts a great damn villain. Tom Lips as the King’s fool is another delightful presence onstage, and then there’s Bryan Morris’ stalwart servant Kent…lots to enjoy here, folks, is what I’m saying.
But there are two other things I really want to mention about this production, besides the performers. One is Elanor Crowders VERY cool use of sound in the show. Staged basically in the round, she makes copious use of off-stage sounds, crashes, shouts, crowd noises and what have you, sometimes to the point of nearly drowning out the action onstage. And I have NO PROBLEM with that, and neither should you. Heck, I’m a David Lynch fan, I’m gonna complain about ambient noise? The sounds from the King’s gaggle of offstage knights in act one are especially effective, as are the cries of ‘CORNWALL!” from all around you during the final battle scenes.
Which is the OTHER thing I wanted to mention …the fight scenes. Now, it’s an amateur production, so you’re not exactly gonna get CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON when the fighting starts. So I ask you…why NOT use small children do do the dirty work? It’s a bloody brilliant touch, and the sight of those little kids storming on stage, swords in hand, and doubtless having the time of their lives, is worth the price of admission in itself. Kudos to fightmeisters John Brogan and Chris McLeod for good fun work on the choreography (and yes, a few adults get in on the action, too).
This LEAR is a pretty fun night out, running a neat three hours counting intermission. I’ll be curious to compare it to the all-aboriginal version the NAC has cooking next (and yes, I know there will be a SLIGHT budgetary difference…never fear, the Visitor does not discriminate). Thanks for the show, GNAG gang…I’m glad I came. Peace, love and soul,
The Visitor (and Winston)