what i'm watching: soulpepper's king lear

I asked them to surprise me, and surprise me they did. Lear was great.

The performances were understated and powerful. The staging flowed effortlessly on a bare thrust stage. The language was clear and riveting.

Did Soulpepper stop rehearsing everything else and save it all up for Shakespeare? Do they secretly dislike Tom Stoppard and David Mamet? I'm kidding, of course, but I was impressed and frankly amazed. This was far and away the best Soulpepper production of the season.

We actually had seen several of the actors before, including the actor playing Lear, who had a medium-sized part in Gogol's The Government Inspector, and both of the actors playing Regan and Goneril. Each turned in performances that dwarfed anything else we saw this year.

By coincidence, the performance we attended was designated for school groups. The students looked high school age, or maybe older middle school. Before curtain, a few actors gave a talk, highlighting some key words, major themes and staging concepts. It was very well done.

The audience - and I say this with admiration and respect - was stellar. We've been trapped in much noisier, more poorly-behaved audiences chocked full of experienced theatre-goers. I assume the kids were getting it, too, because I heard several people around me sniffling and wiping away tears.

As I mentioned yesterday, I find Lear the most tragic of all tragedies. Hamlet is riveting, but I doubt most audiences relate to it on a personal level. But the pain of a broken family, and of blind, stubborn mistakes, is something many of us have felt. As the third and youngest child, estranged from a dictatorial father for much of my life, it's not hard to figure why this play hits home for me. Which is really something to say about a 400-year-old piece of writing.

A few scenes were especially devastating. The opening scene, when Lear disowns and banishes Cordelia; the scene where Lear curses Goneril with infertility; and the scene where Lear wakes and begins to recognize Cordelia. Some "lesser" scenes were extremely effective, too: Edmund's soliloquy on bastardy and fate; France's declaration of love for the dowry-less Cordelia; Lear's first recognition of his terrible mistake.

By the time the lights came up, I was emotionally wrung out. Damn, I love good theatre.

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