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article imageReview: David Fox owns the stage in otherwise routine 'King Lear' in T.O. Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 29, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - As Edmund the bastard might put it, the wheel of David Fox’s association with Theatre Passe Muraille is come full-circle. A cast member of 1972’s legendary “The Farm Show”, Fox is back at the Toronto venue as the Bard’s greatest tragic hero.
Fox, now 74, is the selling point of the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective’s production of King Lear, which opened at Passe Muraille on Friday. And his fresh take on Lear is the one reason you should see this version, which hails from North Bay and features a mix of experienced actors and recent theatre-school grads.
Veteran stage director Rod Carley envisions Lear taking place on the eve of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion, with Shakespeare’s British royals now a powerful York family in redcoats (and the French invaders conveniently cast as Lower Canada blue coats). But whatever specific parallel Carley wants to make with Lear’s familial tragedy and the political situation in pre-Rebellion Ontario is unclear, as his version still plays as a routine staging of Lear, with different costumes. If nothing else, I suppose the show gets a few extra CanCon points that way.
For those who haven’t read or seen the play since high school, Lear is the story of an aging king who cedes his power to his three daughters and their husbands. But when he tests his daughters by asking them to express their love for him, Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie) respond with hypocritical flattery, while Cordelia (Kelsey Ruhl) answers honestly; this causes the proud, oblivious Lear to disown and banish Cordelia. Lear descends into insanity after he discovers that ceding his powers means ceding his kingly privileges as well, leading to his famous mad episodes in the stormy countryside with his Fool (Hume Baugh).
More trouble brews in the house of the Earl of Gloucester (Charlie Tomlinson), whose illegitimate son Edmund (Joshua Bainbridge) sets up a plot to frame his brother Edgar (Ethan Chapman) and others as traitors. As civil war flares up, Edmund becomes the prize of a sexual tug-of-war between Goneril and Regan. (This production sets up the adulterous undertones right from the first scene; there’s an awkward moment when Bainbridge crosses the stage in front of the other players and stands right next to Cassidy, exchanging looks with her.)
Fox’s folksy, decidedly senile rendition of Lear is a bit reminiscent of Angus, the brain-damaged farmer he memorably played in the debut production of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy in 1999 (also at Passe Muraille), particularly in his moments of confusion or denial. Even in the early scenes, the old king doesn’t seem to be all there: laughing and smiling at strange moments, making calamitous decisions as quickly and casually as if he were ordering a servant to bring his horse, remaining happily clueless about his daughters’ betrayal of him until too late. It makes his transition into madness seem like more of a step than a leap, as if he were already half-mad from the start. Fox’s delivery of the familiar “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech feels less like a raging, anguished howl than a challenge to nature, playfully daring the storm to destroy him. And he also gives new life to lines like, “Never, never, never, never, never!”, which could be botched so easily.
Although the production seems designed mainly as a showcase for Fox, he plays against a few other worthy performers. Cassidy, in particular, gives Goneril a strong seductive quality in addition to the hypocrisy and treachery; the only downside of her performance is in how it highlights the weaknesses in that of Ritchie, who sometimes appears to be just going by rote. Tomlinson, whose well-meaning Gloucester shares some of Fox’s naïveté and bafflement at the sudden betrayals all around him, also stands out, as does Tim Nicholson as the Earl of Kent, the noble whom Lear unwisely banishes but who follows the displaced king in disguise (and an adopted Scottish accent), out of loyalty. Bainbridge’s Edmund lacks subtlety and nuance at times, but his stage presence is strong.
Without Fox, this staging wouldn’t be especially memorable, but it has its good moments. The scene in which (four-hundred-year-old spoiler alert) Regan and her husband, Cornwall (Jeff Miller), pluck out Gloucester’s eyes manages to feel intense and even gruesome without spilling any stage blood, for example. But while the play’s three-plus hours move quickly and rarely lack for energy, Carley throws in a few weird blocking choices – such as inexplicably displaying Cornwall’s body on a bench downstage, a few scenes after his death, while Regan and servant Oswald (Anthony Leclair) discuss battle strategies and Edmund’s propositions upstage. You almost wonder if Miller had a contract demanding extra stage time.
Frank Vona’s set – which is half the wooden walls of a nineteenth-century mansion hall and half made of rocky countryside – is interesting to look at, but seems needlessly elaborate for a relatively small-scale production like this one. Ditto for Jim Harney’s dramatic music cues and the storm effects by lighting designer John Batchelor and sound designer Brian Nettlefold, which don’t detract from the play, but seem just as unnecessary.
After all, when you’re dealing with arguably the greatest tragedy by history’s most beloved playwright, and you’ve got a veteran talent like Fox in the lead, you don’t need a lot of extra fancy frills. For all its creaks and gaps, this King Lear is worth seeing for anyone who wants a new reading of an iconic Shakespeare character – or if you just can’t bother to make the drive to the next Stratford production.
King Lear runs at Theatre Passe Muraille until December 6.
More about king lear, Shakespeare, William shakespeare, david fox, Theatre
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