By William Shakespeare. Directed by Kevin Bennett. An Honest Fishmongers Equity Co-op production. At the Havana Theatre on Saturday, February 25. Continues until March 17
With this production, director Kevin Bennett proves once again that he is one of the most interesting and innovative young talents in town. Here, he gives us King Lear like you’ve never seen it—or felt it—before.
I’m willing to wager you’ve never been this close to it. Bennett packs an audience of 60 into the tiny Havana Theatre. There’s a narrow central corridor for the actors, but they also move between the two rows of seats that ring the corridor on three sides. The actors sometimes touch audience members and speak to them—so you might have Lear pleading his case directly to you. On opening night, one of the most moving moments came when the king, deranged and physically frail, was having difficulty standing up: a nearby audience member started to reach out, barely stopping himself from offering to help.
Theatre is all about physical presence—unlike most other methods of storytelling and story delivery, including movies, television, and the Internet—so this strategy cannily capitalizes on the nature of the medium.
Bennett is also innovative with the text. In terms of making sense, Lear can be a tough haul. The story is about an aging monarch who divides his land and power between his flattering daughters, Goneril and Regan, while cutting his loyal, honest daughter, Cordelia out of her inheritance. Abused by his now wealthy children, Lear descends into agonized dementia, a young nobleman named Edward feigns madness, and Lear’s Fool speaks in Elizabethan riddles, so there’s a whole lot that’s hard to follow. Under Bennett’s guidance, the members of this company know what they’re talking about so there’s a base level of clarity, but Bennett also allows the characters’ speeches to overlap. This strategy contributes to the overall vigour of the reading; it also allows Bennett to use the mad characters’ gibberish to create a kind of discordant musicality, a swirling chaos of ideas and imagery.
In the strong acting company, I particularly enjoyed Emma Slipp’s Regan. In this production, Slipp emerges as a beauty of screen-siren magnitude. And she uses her physical charm in a chillingly manipulative, feline characterization.
I also very much appreciated the originality of Sebastian Kroon’s Fool. He stammers, he’s drunken, coarse, giddy, and, one senses, deeply sad.
In a bold move, Bennett has cast Julie McIsaac as Edgar. Because McIsaac’s transparency is perfectly suited to Edgar’s innocence, and because her boyish haircut makes her a handsome and credible youth, the cross-gender casting works seamlessly.
Evan Frayne is wonderfully weedy as Edgar’s wicked brother Edmund. Anthony F. Ingram is touching as their dithering, ultimately tragic father, Gloucester. And David Bloom embodies casually masculine integrity as Kent, a Lear loyalist.
Though sometimes vocally mannered, Simon Webb’s Lear is always a compelling presence. You won’t find more naked honesty than exists in the simple sorrow and confusion that Webb brings to the play’s final passage. It’s devastating.
But there’s also joy—and communion—in seeing a theatrical tragedy told so well.