Review: GROUNDLING’S "LEAR" IS MOST DEFINITELY A SOMETHING, AND NOT A NOTHING

Joe Szekeres

To see actors who have been well trained in the performance of classic live theatre is indeed a most thrilling experience for any audience. To see actors who understand clearly the intricate nuance of the Bard’s works is an opportunity not to be missed. I had never heard of Groundling Theatre Company before, and when I read they were performing Shakespeare’s LEAR (a personal favourite of mine) I did not want to miss this production. I was pleasantly surprised to see that several of the Stratford Festival’s finest actors are performers within this company.

Film maker Atom Egoyan writes in the programme, “The mission of Groundling was clear. It was intended to present the magnificent words of Shakespeare with a bold sense of intimacy. By finding intelligent directorial approaches and innovative spaces, new interpretations of the plays might be forged.” Right you are on this one, Mr. Egoyan.  This LEAR, now playing until January 28, 2018 in the intimate theatre at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, is most certainly bold and daring thanks to the intuitive and insightful vision of director Graham Abbey.

Shakespeare aficionados and lovers of his plays know this plot of family dysfunctionality. The foolishly elder matriarch Lear (a jaw dropping and captivating performance by Seana McKenna) has called her daughters Goneril (Deborah Hay), Regan (Diana Donnelly), and Cordelia (Mercedes Morris) together so that they may profess their love vocally to gain a share of the land.  Ms. Hays and Ms. Donnelly are spitefully and wonderfully engrossing in their performances with the tricks they employ to dupe their mother. Lear’s favourite, Cordelia (an intensely humane and very naturalistic performance by Mercedes Morris) refuses to give in to this superficial display of affection as she loves her mother according to her bond as a daughter ‘no more, no less’.

In a similar subplot, Lear’s confidant the Earl of Gloucester (Jim Mezon, whose performance level beautifully matches that of Ms. McKenna) foolishly believes how his bastard son, Edmund (a wicked performance by Alex McCooeye) has maliciously duped the old man to believe the truthful and legitimate son, Edgar (solid performance by Antoine Yared) is on a course to destroy the old man.

Mere words cannot even begin to describe the masterful excellence and flawlessness of this production, beginning with the gender change in casting of the title role. Although she does appear masculine in hair design and dress at the top of the show, Ms. McKenna’s emotional intensity and depth reveal to us she is a woman who has been ‘more sinned against than sinning’ and we are moved emotionally in believing her. Through the tragic course of events, Ms. McKenna transforms spectacularly into madness before our eyes from a shallow and foolish ruler to a compassionate and loving parent who begs forgiveness from a wronged child.

As Lear’s Fool, Colin Mochrie thankfully provides the few and far between ‘comic’ elements of the story. I once read an adage that says the eyes are the window to the soul. Mr. Mochrie proves this truth in those brief moments where he makes us smile, while his eyes show the sadness he feels for his ruler and where life has taken her. As the banished and yet loyal servant Kent, Kevin Hanchard’s impressive performance reminds us all there are good people in our lives even when we do make mistakes. In their performances as the Duke of Cornwall, Albany and Oswald, Alex Poch-Goldin, Karl Ang and Augusto Bitter earnestly heighten and underscore the suffocating tragedy that will be of great cost in the end.

Groundling’s LEAR showcases how this tale is an actor’s piece, especially in the second act. The storm which finds Lear, the Fool and Tom out on the heath is exciting to watch thanks to the music and sound effects provided by the key work of musicians George Meanwell and Graham Hargrove. The plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes is horrifying yet mesmerizing to watch in the capable hands of Ms. Donnelly, Mr. Poch Goldin and Mr. Mezon. The most heartbreaking moment of the story occurs at the end when Lear brings in the body of her beloved, Cordelia. Ms. McKenna’s guttural crying howl in the recognition of what was done to her daughter cuts right to our very souls. I’m certain many of the audience members had tears in their eyes, as I did, when Lear sadly believes his dead daughter has come back to life before she dies.

What a truly eventful evening of pure performance in theatricality and sound.  Get to see this LEAR before it closes.

Groundling Theatre Company’s production of LEAR continues to January 28, 2018 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queens Quay West, Toronto. Tickets may be purchased at 416-973-4000 or visit LEARtoronto.com or groundlingtheatre.com for further information.

Photo graciously provided by Groundling Theatre Company.