A certain kind of madness

Theatre Calgary’s production of King Lear was a good crazy.

Jennifer Dorozio

Flashes of lightening crack, thunder roars and a stumbling madman emerges from the backdrop.

His shirt is un-tucked, his hair is full of static but, most telling, is the wild spark that fills his eyes, and the angry pitch with which he yells heavenward.

So enters the mad King Lear to the bittersweet pleasure of a rapt Calgary theatre audience. What the actor, Benedict Campbell, has successfully done, is to make you want to admonish the foolish king, and give him a comforting pat on the shoulder at the same time.

The scene described is the first we see after the intermission of Theatre Calgary’s production of King Lear, directed by Dennis Garnhum which runs from March 10 until April 12.

Where the first half is full on Shakespearean plotting, dialogue and pensive monologues, the second is pure action and includes gouged eyeballs, a ranting half naked madman, and assorted “deserved” and “undeserved” deaths.

Photo credit - Trudie Lee
Photo credit – Trudie Lee

King Lear is one of the “famous” Shakespeare plays, which brings to life the tale of a King of Britain’s descent into madness, and then his journey out of it, which ends in tragedy, great loss and ultimately his death.

Intrigue abounds as brothers clash, and sisters with sharp tongues and nasty streaks are backed into corners as Lear’s kingdom is divvied up among the royal family.

The play centres on Lear and his three daughters, Goneril (Colleen Wheeler), Regan (Jennifer Lines) and Cordelia (Andrea Rankin). The aged king loves his youngest the best (hey! I’m the youngest and best too), and this leads to complications, especially after his own self-serving game of ‘how much do you love me?’ causes him to banish Cordelia. The vultures in the royal family, who try to wrest away power from his feeble hands, then betray the proud Lear.

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend,

Lear, I,i

The characters themselves feature some quirky and brooding additions in their mix. One in particular stands out among the rest: the fool, who is King Lear’s Court Jester, played by Bard on the Beach regular Scott Bellis.

*Garnhum’s Lear will follow at Bard on the Beach’s summer playbill.

The fool, imbues some much-needed levity into the first act. Wearing a coxcomb on his head, he spends a majority of his stage time leaping from place to place. Curiously, his mad interpretation of Lear’s confused reality does lend a bizarre sort of clarity to the king’s situation.

This is exemplified when the fool eerily jests to King Lear, “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen,” foreshadowing all the cacophonous events to come.

Heartbreaking is the excellent performance of the Earl of Gloucester, played by David Marr, who is the play’s one paternal character you can’t help but feel badly for as misfortune after misfortune befalls him.

Then there’s the scene that sticks out because of its unnecessary gore. Gloucester’s eyeballs are in stomach-churning fashion carved out his head and at one point even trodden upon. It did little to add to the production other then induce cringes and distraction at all the fake blood for a full two minutes afterward.

Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

Cornwall, III, vii

Michael Blake performance of Edmund, the crafty bastard son of the Gloucester, is charmingly sinister. He plots for revenge by promoting multiple sibling entanglements making him both convincing as a villain, and likable.

While actor Andrea Rankin, as the young Cordelia, does play the doe-eyed daughter well, there is something a little grating about her over the top sweetness that came off as insincerity near the end. It seemed as though her tone and countenance changed little whether responding to a marriage proposal or being angry at her father’s mistreatment.

The Shakespearean world of King Lear, so artfully woven by the troupe of Theatre Calgary actors, doesn’t seem very far off from our own world, which is perhaps why the play still feels so relevant. These themes of undying devotion, betrayal and greed still saturate news media, television and movies because they are reflections of human reality and frailty.

Getting through the more slow-paced first half is well worth the wait. The explosion of passion, blood and revenge in the second half leaves you completely sated in a way only an excellent acting troupe and script can do.

Here’s a scene.

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