Stratford Festival’s King Lear

This weekend I got to see King Lear as put on by the Stratford Festival at Cineplex. I really, really enjoyed the performance and all throughout the film I was taking notes, as you can see is rather difficult in a dark theatre, but I had some things I could sort of make sense of, enough to help me write this response to it.

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I love movies and have a great love of cinematography, and knowing this performance to be a stage performance, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of cinematography, but I was really pleasantly surprised. There were incredibly varying shots and angles that were very well cut between; there was a great sense of fluidity. The framing could have been improved in some places but for the most part I was really impressed.

Being a performance on a stage, it was really interesting to see the audience in the background of some shots and to actually feel like you were watching a play in that theatre. The layout of the stage was very interesting, a much different shape than I am used to performing on or seeing, and it allowed for the audience to be seated on three of the four sides of the stage. Watching a film performance of this was made really interesting because the camera had so many places to be and actors could sidestep the traditional rule of never having your back to the audience, yet this didn’t affect a film audience’s viewing because the camera angles directed the focus properly. Sometimes some members of the audience would be unable to see a character except the back of them, but I think that this is a small sacrifice in order to offer a more three-dimensional experience. As well, the stage’s different levels allowed for the actors to play at different physical levels, such as when Edmund died on the stairs, and gave them different entrances and exits; there was a lot of variation and the blocking never got boring.

The special effects were something I really enjoyed and even before seeing the performance I was already excited and curious about seeing the storm sequence and wondering how it would be done – there was some fantastic lighting for lightning, it was very realistic, and great sound for thunder, and then fog machines were used and the actors played being in the rain very convincingly. Other sound effects, especially for the wounds, like the sound of Glocester’s eyes being gouged out, were very impressive. Theatre as an experience is immersive, and I think the power of it could be seen here. In the McKellan version, there were some lighting choices or backdrops that looked so bad that I was rolling my eyes, but not here. Though the staging and lighting was minimal at parts, it completely captured me and held my attention, concentrating it solely on the action and being free from distraction. It’s a bit difficult to explain the true power of theatre, and it didn’t get lost here even in a film version. Although there may have been less stuff like props and set pieces than in the TV movie version, I found this performance altogether more immersive and enjoyable than the McKellan.

One thing that I didn’t enjoy about the McKellan version that we watched was that the costumes were too varied in their time periods and styles; here, that problem was nonexistent. During the intermission there was a behind the scenes featurette from the Stratford Festival in which they detailed the costuming, dying, painting, wig and jewel making and it was so impressive, and that could definitely be seen on stage. I really enjoyed all the costumes and loved the little subtleties that added so much to the viewing. For instance, while in the opening scene, all of Lear’s daughters wore ruff collars on their dresses, only Cordelia’s was a full ruff, Goneril and Regan had ruffs similar to the other version, they were open and gave the impression of a serpent or lizard, which is what the sisters were compared to. The most impressive subtlety for me was in Lear – after dividing his kingdom, little by little you could see that some of his buttons were undone, his shirt was loose, his boots were not the same height – all these little details just showed how he was unravelling, and it was brilliantly done and really accentuated what was going on.

The makeup was absolutely fantastic. I’ve worked with fake blood before in school, a really cheap kind that’s mostly sugar and starts to lose the colour of blood after a few minutes, so I’m always really interested in how fake blood is done in movies and  theatre – it is so difficult to replicate because blood is cells – and the makeup here was fantastic. The blood of Gloucester was very convincing, from the blood that came out of his eyes and what stained his clothing, being the right kind of brown, but in particular, after his bandages were taken off, the empty eye sockets were really stunning and believable, even in the close up shots of him. The dirt and marks on characters like Edgar and Lear were also very good.

While the characters said the same lines in both versions, I thought that the differences in some of the directors’ and actors’ choices led to very different interpretations of the characters, and differences in my feelings towards the characters. This I felt most strongly in the characters of Goneril and Regan. I think that a great deal of this came from how the actresses looked. In the McKellan version, Goneril and Regan were very severe looking and looked much older, here, they didn’t look so scary, and so didn’t seem so evil. Goneril for me in particular did not seem evil, she actually seemed genuine in her pleading with Lear – this could just be how good her character was as an actress, but some of my belief in her evil intentions was lost. As the play progressed, she seemed more selfish than truly evil, and there is some room for debate about which she really is, or if she is more of one than the other. Even so, in this version, Regan seemed  to me to be the one who was more evil, more conniving and less likeable, and I thought it was very interesting to see her as more capable and independent, especially since in the McKellan version we saw Cornwall whispering to her, prodding her to speak more when she was telling Lear how much she loved him – that painted her as weak. Another interesting character interpretation was of Edgar – when he was first introduced, he was feverishly kissing a maid – something I didn’t expect from a character who in the end seemed so perfect. All in all, the interpretations and representations of the characters were delightfully surprising, even if they did differ from expectations.

The performances were truly remarkable and I felt a greater understanding of the plot, characters and dialogue after seeing this interpretation. The actor of Lear was magnificent, and I also really enjoyed Gloucester, Cordelia, and Edgar in particular. The performances were powerful and engaging and I really admired the acting choices made, from where the actors looked or didn’t look, their blocking and their speech. One thing that did bother me however was the delivery of asides and monologues. In particular, Edmund’s lines felt catered to the audience; he was reacting to their laughter and seemed to be speaking directly to them as if knowing that they were there, but I didn’t have this sense with any other character. It seemed to me that all the other characters were expressing their thoughts in their asides and monologues, but not to the audience, and you could see this in the way they reacted to the audience, the way they looked at them and the way they spoke. The lack of consistency was a bit annoying but on the whole I still think that the Stratford Festival did an incredible job in delivering a captivating play.

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