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Review of King Lear at the Trinity Shakespeare Festival

Updated on June 13, 2015

Lear and Cordelia

Lear and Cordelia's reunion is one of the emotional high points in an emotionally tense play.
Lear and Cordelia's reunion is one of the emotional high points in an emotionally tense play. | Source

Trinity Shakespeare does not disappoint!

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's most divisive plays. Written around 1606, it has been called Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, his best play, his most pessimistic play, and even one of, if not his worst, his most problematic plays. The action of the play interweaves complex subplots and employs a larger-than-normal dose of Shakespearean madness, mistaken identity, and complicated subplots and ends with what may be the saddest ending Shakespeare ever wrote. Lear is indeed one of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedies, by the end of the play, Lear and all his family are dead and England is left in ruins. However, director T. J. Walsh and a gifted cast find stark beauty in this play and create a truly sublime production, at times funny, more often than not horribly tragic, but above all else, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Every inch a King!

King Lear tells the story of an ancient king of Britain who decides to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters so that he can retire and live a life of ease while still retaining the title of king and a retinue of 100 knights. He puts his daughters to the test, saying he will reward them land in exchange for how well they express their love. Immediately, his plans go awry. While his elder daughters Goneril and Regan protest their undying and boundless devotion to their father and are given ample portions of the kingdom in return. Cordelia, Lear's favorite daughter, refuses to participate and bluntly opposes the flattering (but false) love her sister's express. Angered, Lear rashly disowns Cordelia and his loyal friend Kent who tries to defend Cordelia. Meanwhile, Gloucester, one of Lear's dukes, has family troubles of his own. His illegitimate son Edmund has secret plans to usurp his half-brother Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son-and-heir. Edmund devises a plot to frame his brother and later his father for treachery. Lear descends into madness when he finds his daughters have no intention of upholding their side of the bargain, demanding that he disband the followers they promised him. In a blind rage, Lear leaves the shelter of their castles in the midst of a fierce storm, accompanied only by Kent, now disguised as a commoner, and the Fool, his jester, the only two men who love him enough to try to dissuade him from his folly.

David Coffee, a crown jewel for the Trinity Shakespeare Festival, is magnificent as Lear, "Every inch a King!" as Lear himself would say. Coffee is a multi-talented performer who has appeared in every one of Trinity Shakespeare's productions since the festival's inception but his Lear may indeed be the greatest role of his career. Coffee's energy is staggering and he is mesmerizing at the heights of Lear's pathos and the depths of his madness. He is supported by as fine a cast as Trinity Shakespeare has ever assembled. Lear is an ensemble piece and this production contains many notable performances. Richard Haratine, another Trinity Shakespeare veteran, is a marvelous Kent and his onstage chemistry with Coffee creates a moving portrait of the man's love for his king. Delaney Milbourn is a fine Cordelia and makes her reunion with Lear in the play's final act one of the most memorable scenes in a production full of many such moments which is no mean feat given the relatively brief length of Cordelia's role in the play. Lydia MacKay and Sarah Rutan, as Goneril and Regan respectively, make the daughters more sympathetic in the play's first act. Instead of seeming like truly scheming "wicked" older sisters, they seem more like concerned daughters who do not know how to handle their father's irresponsible behavior. As the play draws to a close, however, they show their true colors and McKay and Rutan portray this shift well. Montgomery Sutton is a suitably villainous Edmund while still communicating the pathos of the character who is at least in part simply fighting against the injustice of his situation.

This production "updates" the setting slightly to the late Middle Ages, featuring typical medieval garb and Renaissance-style rapiers and daggers. Costume designer Aaron DeClerk does an excellent job clothing the characters to help distinguish factions in this often confusing play of power shifts and struggles. Although there are large battles in the play, the stage combat is well performed though it seems there are a few kinks to work out in the production where stage clean up is concerned. Despite several entrances of maids to scrub the floor clean, residue from blood packets threatened to trip up the actors. The stark stage, backed by a towering, cathedral-like backdrop that blends Gothic arches with organic, vine-like coverings. The lighting is cleverly split between the two sides of the stage, emphasizing the splits and divisions in the play, of families, marriages, and loyalties. Often, the light is filtered through bars and fog, effectively creating indoor and outdoor spaces on stage. The production also works hard to solve some of the more perplexing dilemmas the play presents (such as why the Fool disappears partway through the second act or where the King of France goes after the first act) and while they play will still be a challenge for those unfamiliar with it, Trinity Shakespeare more than makes this play worth the effort. It is an unforgettable experience.

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