Jennifer Lines, Benedict Campbell and Colleen Wheeler in King Lear. Photo by David Blue.
Jennifer Lines, Benedict Campbell and Colleen Wheeler in King Lear. Photo by David Blue.

Clocking in at over three hours, King Lear is not for the faint-of-heart. In the current Bard on the Beach and Theatre Calgary co-production though, thanks to a masterful performance and a laser focus on story, it is as powerful as anything you will ever see.

Having made the decision to divvy up his kingdom among his three daughters, Lear’s only condition is that they each tell him how much they love him. Two of his daughters oblige, humouring him with eloquent speeches of how much they cherish dear old dad. The third though is not so willing and, in the Shakespeare equivalent of being sent to her room without dinner, is banished from the land and decides to take up with the King of France. Meanwhile, on the other side of the kingdom, the Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund concocts a story of murderous duplicity that sees his legitimate son Edgar fleeing for his life.

As the two storylines come together it becomes a perfect storm of treachery, murder, madness and, ultimately reconciliation that makes King Lear one of Shakespeare’s grandest stories, and potentially his most confusing. Thanks to director Dennis Garnhum’s vision though, there is a clarity that pays off big time by placing the emphasis fully on telling its story. It also helps to have a cast that, for the most part, is able to deliver on that vision.

Leading the way is Benedict Campbell’s turn in the title role. Effortlessly moving from heavy-handed father to his ultimate decline into madness, Campbell is seemingly destined to have played this role. There is such masterful precision to his performance that without wishing to sound too effusive, it is not hard to imagine his portrayal of Lear joining the ranks of some of history’s greatest.

Of course, with such a stand-out performance at the top, there is always a risk that the other performances will be overshadowed. This production suffers no such fate, with the bulk of this cast delivering equally solid and satisfying performances.

Benedict Campbell gives a masterful performance as King Lear. Photo by David Blue.
Benedict Campbell gives a masterful performance in the Bard on the Beach / Theatre Calgary production of King Lear. Photo by David Blue.

The duo of Colleen Wheeler and Jennifer Lines as the two conniving sisters are a force to be reckoned with, and Scott Bellis brings wonderful layers to his role as the King’s Fool and conscience; when paired with Campbell this other duo gives us some of the best scenes of the night. David Marr brings a nobility and dignity to the Earl of Gloucester even as he suffers an especially gruesome fate.

But even among so many outstanding performances, that also includes Nathan Schmidt as Edgar and John Murphy’s Earl of Kent, it is in Michael Blake’s return to Vanier Park, as the conniving Edmund, that elevates this King Lear even further. There is an easiness about Blake’s portrayal, with his good looks and sly smile that is as deliciously satisfying as any of the best stage villains.

Feeding into Garnhum’s vision, Pam Johnson gives us a suitably simple set to allow the focus on the action and Gerald King’s lighting moves suitably from light to dark in step with the decline of the king. Dave Pierce underscores the action with a wonderful soundscape and original music (although I’m not sure he can take credit for the serendipitous timing of a boat’s horn last night as Lear lays dying in the final moments of the play).

Forget the bells and whistles, this King Lear is all about story. This is how Shakespeare should be done.

King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by Dennis Garnhum. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production in collaboration with Theatre Calgary. On stage at Vanier Park until September 20. Visit http://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.

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