The moment Paul Gross planted both feet on the Festival Theatre stage for the opening night of King Lear the actor, better known for his cinematic and television outings, immediately laid to rest any misgivings one might have with his being cast as Shakespeare’s most complex monarch.
In a role that has perplexed, invited, and enticed countless actors over the years with one Albert Finney avoiding it, Gross made himself right at home tackling all aspects of the troubled king from his personal battle of fighting for his sanity to his ill-considered vanity-guided decision to split his kingdom between his three daughters and their husbands.
Though hard to believe in such a dramatic tragedy, there are even moments of humour in which Lear takes centre stage, most noticeably when trading barbs with his cheeky court Fool, played brilliantly by Gordon Patrick White or simply cavorting about, shouting, and screaming with his court followers in tow, some waiting for his ultimate collapse.
For those concerned about Stratford’s 2023 version of King Lear with Gross, it appears the TV and screen star, writer and director recognized as Constable Benton Fraser in CTV’s Due South, part of an offbeat curling team in Men With Brooms or as the creator of the moving World War 1 epic Passchendaele is unquestionably ideally suited for this challenging role.
As for his theatrical experience, of which he has plenty, he shone as Hamlet at the Stratford Festival 2000, received a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme and has been on stage regularly across North America including a stint of Private Lives on Broadway.
He even afforded the chance to throw a satiric barb or two at this festival, playing a highly dysfunctional artistic director of a Shakespearean gala, like Stratford’s – all good-natured fun courtesy of the offbeat TV series Slings and Arrows.
As Lear, decades of warfare and continuous court politics have left the weary monarch with his poorly designed scheme of dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. Before stepping down from power, each must swear eternal love and devotion to him in a very public fashion.
To a large degree his two elder daughters Goneril (Shannon Taylor) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green) seem almost carbon copies of one another, although Regan is less up front than her older sister, for the most part allowing men to carry out her dastardly deeds.
The two, while seeming at least somewhat concerned about their parent in the opening stanzas, shower their vain father with lavish, unwavering loyalty. The clever siblings do exactly what he requests. Loving showy adoration over the truth, he wallows in their shallow affection.
As the play progresses both Taylor and Regan, in beautifully etched performances of greed and power, demonstrate just how devious and cunning they are, manipulating their circle of followers and royal attendants while ultimately isolating the increasingly enraged Lear.
Meanwhile, Cordelia (Tara Sky) the youngest and most cherished of Lear’s daughters, is banished from the court when she refuses to simply mimic the hollow words of her sisters. While off-stage for much of the play, she is vital in the later reconciliation scene with her father.
Sky, offering a theatrical rendering of honesty and faithfulness, is particularly effective in projecting an image of virtue, honesty, and genuine love, serving well laterally, as a symbol of an albeit incomplete re-establishment of a sense of personal order within the kingdom.
Gross, demonstrates his versatility as he captures the two wildly disparate and changing frames of mind Lear undergoes throughout the play, going from rage to appeasement:
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurour and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!” (Act 3, Scene 2)
“No, no, no, no? Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing. I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So, we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.
At gilded butterflies and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out –
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things.
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones.
That ebb and flows by the moon.”
(Act 5, Scene 3)
Confidently and in a well-paced manner for the nearly three-hour production, director Kimberley Rampersad skillfully focuses on the breakdown between father – a man who feels “more sinned against than a sinner” and his three daughters, creating both a powerful family and public drama.
She also brings buoyancy to the heated and ultimate deadly rivalry between Edmund (Michael Blake), illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (Anthony Santiago) and his lawful offspring Edgar (André Sills).
Blake is superb, revealing Edmund as the most complex villain in the production cleverly eliciting sympathy from those around him, a brilliantly thorough Machiavellian schemer who knows no bounds in securing his goals.
In a captivating performance with the bonus of physical confrontation, he is determined to get rid of his brother and father so he will become Earl. He then flirts with the other two schemers Goneril and Regan, successfully playing them off against one another.
Although initially duped by half brother Edmund, Edgar disguises himself successfully as a madman/beggar, saving himself from the death sentence his father has pronounced on him while helping Gloucester and Lear and avenging the wrongs committed by his half-brother.
A commanding presence particularly in later scenes, Sills is impressive first portraying Edgar as a naïve figure, then transforming the character into a true force to reckon with – both physically and intellectually.
Santiago’s aged and rather simple Earl of Gloucester is a courtier of Lear’s – a curious mixture of superstition, gullibility, and timidity, often misled by virtually anyone in his presence but unlike others is loyal and loving.
For Lear and Gloucester, it’s all about irony and misinterpretation which neither one gets until it’s too late to really mean much to either of them.
David W. Keeley is another gem in the cast as the banished Earl of Kent who disguises himself to stay close to his king. Honest and devoted to his monarch, his disguise as an ordinary man is a highlight of the play.
Gordon Patrick White is absolute perfection as the Fool – loyal and honest even when conversing with his monarch, a luxury afforded to no one else in the kingdom including the royal family and closest of friends.
He is ironic, sarcastic, hilarious and can even ease into his touches of truth when kibitzing with Lear. White is top of the class as he makes the very best of what is clearly the juiciest role in so many of the Bard’s greatest works.
The question remains for audiences waiting to take in this lengthy slice of gripping Shakesperean tragic drama with snippets of comedy, thanks to Paul Gross and cast: does Lear learn from his mistakes and becomes a better and more insightful human being?
A five-star production with highly effective set design and lighting by Judith Bowden and Chris Malkowski and some delightfully curious costuming from Michelle Bohn.
King Lear continues at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 29.