Nov 30, 2015

Try A Little Tenderness

Full cast of King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair 
King Lear is one of my favorite plays. The 1606 work examines ideas of family, responsibility, motivation, and obligation in a cutting way few other theatrical works do. The premise is basic: Lear, wanting to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, asks them to express their love. Goneril and Regan go over-the-top in their declamations, while the youngest, Cordelia, says she loves him "according to my bond, no more, nor less." The former are rewarded for their proclamations; the latter, banished for her honesty. Therein ensues a monumental family tragedy, one that incorporates another family's drama (a nasty one involving two sons, each from different mothers), and a dance of damaged children and hurting parents that spirals toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

In light of my mother's passing earlier this year, I wasn't sure that seeing Lear live wouldn't be a slightly painful ordeal. The dramas, the breakdowns, the unseemly machinations and manipulations, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia happening too late and being all too brief – Shakespeare's great work was difficult for me to contemplate watching live. And yet something pulled me in the direction of Theatre Passe Muraille when I heard about the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective production

Ostensibly set in Upper Canada in 1837, director Rod Carley uses the theatre's intimate surroundings to incredible effect, with a pared-down cast, simple set design (by Frank Vona), dramatic lighting (by John Batchelor) and sound effects (by Brian Nettlefold), creating a deeply moving portrait of a family in crisis. The tensions between the characters are brought to vivid life via stellar ensemble work, particularly the growing animosity between sisters Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie), and their overall disgust with younger sister Cordelia (an endearingly earnest Kelsey Ruhl).  Joshua Bainbridge, who plays Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester (a fantastically earthy Charlie Tomlinson), offers a deeply fascinating portrait of deceit, using a combination of easy joviality and wide-eyed "integrity" to convince his father that legitimate son Edgar (Ethan Chapman) is up to no good. Hume Baugh is a bitingly angry Fool, frustrated as much with his master as with his own failing health (Carley's production simply, powerfully answers the lingering question of what happens to the Fool), and nicely contrasts with Ethan Chapman's sparky take on Edgar's "Poor Tom" disguise.

David Fox as King Lear and Hume Baugh as the Fool. Photo by Anthony Leclair
The chemistry between the cast is indeed electric, a feeling intensified by the close quarters of the performance space itself; when Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeff Miller), goes to forcibly remove Gloucester's eyes, one winces more than usual — the players are only mere feet away, after all, and though there is no blood or gore, there is a visceral sense to the proceedings made all the more keen because of the immediacy of the players, their words, their conviction to the text and to the world director Carley has placed them in. This is a King Lear that feels very real, its family dramas and power plays disquietingly close, both literally and figuratively.

What powers much of this intimacy, outside of the space itself, is the central performance of David Fox, an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of school teacher Clive Pettibone on the television series Road to Avonlea. His portrayal of Lear, by turns spitting orders and then stumbling over words, standing over an intransigent Earl of Kent (Tim Nicholson) and then doddering barefoot along wearing a crown of branches later, is shattering. Fox, who is 74 years old, uses his own gangly physicality to complete advantage, standing imperiously at the start of the work, and fumbling in a wheelchair by its end. He plumbs the depths of Lear's failing health, mentally and physically, and bases much of the character's outrage on a very real and palpable sense of damaged pride.

David Fox as King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair
This is, as many with aging parents will know, a very big thing with the elderly. Dealing with pride amidst failing health is no small matter. There was something so utterly familiar about the mix of vulnerability, confusion, shame, and theatrical show of pride in Fox's performance of the old King, that more than once I found myself gritting teeth to control tears. A companion who joined me at the performance said something at the intermission about the ungrateful daughters needing to "humour" Lear, but, as I watched the second half, with each appearance of Lear revealing more and more of his fragility, all I could think was, tenderness is key. It is everything in dealing with a failing parent. Tenderness is what Cordelia offers, in abundance; the expression on Ruhl's face as she interacts with Fox brims with this very quality, even as her character must swallow the deep grief at seeing his deterioration. We remember how our parents used to be, and it's hard, if not impossible, to reconcile that with the small, sickly person before us; no matter how large a parent might've loomed in our lives, the fact they shrink, literally and figuratively, bowed before age and infirmity, is heartbreaking. This is what Cordelia deals with when she sees her father again, after he's been rejected by his elder daughters and has wandered the heath in a storm. Time has sped up, only to be stopped, mercifully, in order for the two to beautifully, poetically reconcile. Seeing who he is, past the physical, and embracing it, as opposed to rejecting it, manipulating it, making a play based on personal want, is what makes Cordelia such a unique and moving figure.

Tenderness is the slow, gentle engine that allows great if quiet love to make itself known. It means putting our own ego wants — what we think the parent should be saying or doing or believing or choosing — aside. Tenderness only asks for and manifests in loving presence, little more. Anyone who's experienced the deterioration of a parent, whether through illness or age (or both), will tell you it isn't the easiest thing in the world, not by a longshot; one has to have Herculean levels of patience and fortitude, and, being only human, none of us can manage to be saintly 100% of the time. And when that parent has a moment of self-awareness, and asks for your forgiveness, as Lear does with Cordelia, there is really little to be said or done, but to hold hands, gently, and to simply be there, tenderly, as they make their way into another realm. King Lear reminded me of the importance of tenderness, earlier this year, and now, and moving forwards. All hail, King Tenderness.


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