A Lear and a Half

The First Half

One of the dangers of Shakespeare outdoors on a summer evening in Edmonton is weather rapidly turning foul.  A joy of such a change is when a storm blows up as The Tempest starts or Lear and companions seek shelter on the Heath.  Macrocosm mirroring microcosm is a dramatic thing to be inside.  Sometimes, however, Macrocosm overwhelms microcosm and the play is called on account of rain. And wind. And loonie-sized hailstones. During Freewill Shakespeare Company’s July 10th performance of King Lear, the heavens opened and a short time before Intermission, the action on stage was suspended for the action on high.  Several hundred rain-checks were distributed to the audience, who all seemed to be smiling and laughing at their adventure on the Heath. Clearly, everyone intended to return another day.

The Other Two Halves

King Lear is a flexible text.  The play exists in three source versions, two published during Shakespeare’s life, and the posthumous version in the First Folio.  All three versions have significant differences of wording and even of whole passages. Acting companies can with justification pick and choose which version or conflation of versions the wish to present.  Freewill remains true to its name and has freely conflated characters and left out passages as size of company and time available necessitate.  They have not taken the sorts of risks I’ve mentioned they take in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the Lear on the Freewill stage is not quite the same as the one in the text you may have brought along in your backpack.

I’m not complaining: Freewill presents a tight, easily followed version of Lear.  As they do in Midsummer, the company makes all the characters stand clearly apart in the audience’s minds.  Sheldon Elter as Edmund struts about the stage, proud and powerful, always in control, while Nathan Cuckow’s Edgar is by turns languid and wiry as he moves from reading a book quietly at court to gibbering in his Mad Tom disguise, being pushed by events til the end.

Belinda Cornish and John Ullyatt as Regan and Cornwall are deliciously and sexily sadistic. Annette Loiselle’s Goneril has the ambition of Lady Macbeth, but Troy O’Donnell as her husband, Albany, subtly shows that he’s not wholly interested in the game. From the beginning he clearly remains loyal to the banished and anger-filled Kent (John Kirkpatrick) and it is he that brings the final resolution on the corpse strewn stage.

Julian Arnold as Gloucester is spot on as he, like his son Edgar, is cruelly pushed and led by events out of his control.  Kristi Hansen’s Cordelia, a small roll, is handled well, radiating her devotion to honesty in the opening scene, and become a hard battle leader on her return to the stage.

And, King Lear himself.  John Wright crumbles magnificently before our eyes as the King progresses from a bit of a Santa when he first appears to make his mistaken division, to a wheelchair-bound senility in his penultimate appearance.

My only major complaint is that I would have liked Dave Horak to have drawn out more the tragic wisdom of the Fool.  The Fool strikes me as, after Lear himself, the most important character in the play.  I would have liked to see him given more prominence.  And my only minor complaint is that Jesse Gervais is put into multiple minor roles, which he performs magnificently, and painfully, while always wearing the same, distinctive jacket, an unusual exception to Freewill’s remarkable ability to set characters apart from each other, even when played by the same actor.

Unlike with A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, the Freewill company took a more or less traditional route with King Lear, but they made it a powerful and enthralling journey.  There’s still a week left, so see King Lear at least once!

A footnote on the Freewill audience

As I mentioned, when the Wednesday performance was suspended and then cancelled due to the weather, the audience members were remarkably understanding and seemed to be happy with the twist the show had taken. I commend them for this.

I was troubled, however, by a quiet incident during intermission.  I happily went to the back to get some hot chocolate, and happily lined up with the others.  As I stood, I noticed that a gentleman in a wheelchair was waiting to the side of the line I was in, obviously unable to navigate the grass and hill over which the queue stretched, and so, queueing in the only place he could. The line moved forward. No one stopped to let the gentleman in to make his purchase. He seemed invisible to everyone.

When my turn came, I held back and spoke to him, something like “Are you . . .?” with a gesture toward the counter.  The gentleman said a thank you and rolled forward to order some hot chocolate.  The volunteer working the counter immediately came out of the tent to more easily serve the gentleman and I moved forward to make my purchase.  No delay. No inconvenience. For me.

I don’t know why others didn’t let the gentleman have his turn. To me it seemed obvious in an instant that he was queueing in the only way he could and that his place in line was ahead of me.  Perhaps I noticed because I have a lot of experience with people with disabilities. I don’t know.  But I found the gentleman’s intentional or unconscious relegation to the back of the line disturbing.

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