TRAGEDIE OF LEAR (2017)
While bequeathing his estate, an old king makes a rash decision and the consequences bring about his descent into madness.
That’s how Shakespeare’s story usually goes, but Tragedie Of Lear trades the crude idea of losing one’s mind for something more specific. King Lear (Walter Borden) isn’t mad but has Lewy Body Dementia, a condition that causes memory loss, reduced mobility and hallucinations.
Director Ash Knight collaborated with neurological consultant Suvendrini Lena to incorporate the realities of Lewy Body in a truthful way.
Viewing Lear’s actions through this lens instead of as a lunatic king makes sense. The cruel treatment he receives from his daughters is tragic, but it’s not the sole cause of his behaviour and, ultimately, his decline is beyond control. To anyone who has seen an elderly family member suffer from mental illness, it may be strikingly familiar.
The literal interpretation feels authentic thanks to Borden’s well-rounded performance. His Lear’s stately gravitas crumbles as he first doubts those around him before questioning his own grip on reality. Borden gives us a booming Lear rife with anger, fear and desperation who vividly conjures what Shakespeare calls the “second childishness” that old age can bring.
He’s supported by a diverse cast, though some take a while to find their footing. Standouts include Eli Ham’s calculating Edmund, Andrew Moodie’s measured Cornwall and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, who plays both Lear’s daughter Cordelia and a very cleverly reimagined Foole.
It’s great to see the underused Palmerston Theatre paired with Shakespeare. The venue’s close proximity to the subway line means trains can be heard intermittently rumbling underneath the stage. In this case, the sound effectively underscores Ed Hanley’s percussive soundscape and Maddie Bautista’s sound design, both of which help pace and intensify the production.
Lighting designer Jareth Li plays with darkness but employs too much of it. While the lack of light has interesting thematic implications, we can’t always clearly see the actors’ faces.
Overall, Tragedie Of Lear is a thoughtful interpretation of a classic work, one which looks with honesty and compassion at aging and death.