King Lear stands as one of Shakespeare’s most captivatingly tragic plays and watching the Stratford Festival’s performance of it last Saturday, March 7 was a real treat. I definitely enjoyed it, much more than I thought I would. Although the 2008 TV film was also well done, I found myself much more enthusiastic and staying with the storyline when I had audience queues to work off of and when the actors were more interactive with the audience. The atmosphere also played a major role in holding my attention – the dim lights, quiet, lack of distractions (like my phone!) and reactions of the audience to jokes and action made the experience more fulfilling and authentic than staring at my computer screen at home.
Prior to the film starting, a nice introduction played, showing the backstage area, actors, and other plays and behind-the-scenes glances into how the Stratford Festival put on their Shakespearean and other plays. Especially intriguing was the amount and quality of the costumes. Even the Queen was impressed with their rendition of her crown. The authenticity of their costumes and props is very impressive. What also probed my interest was the little questionnaire that was displayed. Did you know that King Lear introduced many new words to the English language? Dislocate, half-blooded and unaccommodated were all used first by Shakespeare in this play.
The play itself began cinematically. A feisty storm with flashy bolts of lightning started the introductory credits. I was worried it would not be true to the style of Shakespeare where props and effects were limited, but the actual play began with a dark stage and only some sound-effects. Once the actors began speaking their lines, I was assured that it would be a well-rounded performance.
I particularly appreciated the interpretation of characters. They differed significantly from the way some actors interpreted their characters in the 2008 TV film (although both interpretations could be deemed accurate portrayals and were well acted). In the 2008 film, I found Regan’s character to be quite discrete and timid, especially during the first scene; in Stratford’s version, her character spoke loudly and confidently. I also found Gonneril’s characterization to be more snooty and stuck-up, which complimented Regan’s character really well, and provided a great contrast near the end when they fight over Edmund. As well, Cordelia’s character was more sassy and rebellious in the 2008 version (at least at first), deliberately going against him to prove her true character and be legitimate. She was more emotional and trying to induce rationality into her father, though clearly outraged at her sisters’ false gushing over their father. Stratford’s Cordelia dealt with a more painful separation from her father than the 2008 character. Kent was also more involved – he speaks and plays a greater role. Edmund’s characterization was, if possible, even more slimy – I found I disliked him even more in this version due to the ability of the actor to portray that sickly suck-up attitude. I wasn’t disappointed with the acting of King Lear – Ian McKellan’s performance had a lot to live up to in my mind. Nevertheless, the actor was dramatic, humorous and had good timing. I was especially impressed during the scene with “Poor Tom” and Gloucester where he has his flower crown on and is sinking into madness – it brought out a mixture of sympathy and hilarity. Overall, all the actors spoke their lines as though they understood exactly what they were saying and were having actual conversations, with either other characters or were announcing to the audience themselves.
I would definitely recommend seeing King Lear (or any Shakespeare play) performed on a stage, either live or filmed from the audience as in the Stratford Festival’s performance. It is a great addition to the required watching of it as a movie done cinematically. I personally will plan on seeing the King Lear showing on April 7th!