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'The Tragedy of King Lear' by William Shakespeare

Presented by Shakespeare BASH'd at The Theatre Centre in the BMO Incubator for Live Arts

Kyle Purcell. Scott Wentworth as King Lear

Joe Szekeres

The adage ‘Less is more’ perfectly applies to Shakespeare BASH’ds production of ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’. Good choices were made throughout by the director which allows for attention to be paid to absorbing storytelling.

It’s a modern take on one of Shakespeare’s classic tales. The tragic hero of a king, Lear (sensational work by Scott Wentworth) foolishly divides his land between his three daughters Goneril (Melanie Leon), Regan (Madelaine Hodges) and Cordelia (Breanne Tice) in a game of ‘who doth love the king most’. Trouble immediately erupts when Cordelia refuses to participate in the childish game. The Duke of Burgundy (Steven Hao) will not marry her because he is interested only in what he can get from the dowry. An exasperated Lear, however, banishes his youngest daughter from England. She is dowerless, yet her husband, the King of France (Tristan Claxton) recognizes his new wife as someone more valuable than any material item. Meanwhile, now that the other two daughters have gained control of the kingdom, they join forces to bring their father to his knees.

Another family’s troubles run parallel to that of Lear. Just like Lear, Gloucester (terrific work by David Mackett) foolishly entrusts his illegitimate son, Edmund (Deivan Steele) over his true loving son, Edgar (Ngabo Nabea). Edmund forges a letter from his brother which indicates a plan to murder their father.

As the two stories intertwine, we are introduced to several others who play an important role in the plot’s development. As Lear’s loyal servant, Kent (Mairi Babb), she sets to keep an eye on the king after her banishment as she too remains faithful to her ruler given his errors in judgment. Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany (Ben Yoganathan) and Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Daniel Briere) at first join forces with their wives to claim their portion of the kingdom but trouble soon erupts between the couples.

There is also the King’s Fool (Julia Nish-Lapidus). She often plays word games, sings songs, and shares anecdotes about the ways of the world with Lear. Periodically, the Fool will shake a tin can of coins to be duly paid for her given advice. Quite humourous in the moment but whether it is heeded is another point.

James Wallis directs the production with a clear vision of insight. He made many tremendously wise choices to make the story come alive starting with modern clothing. This immediately caught my attention. It’s a bare stage save for the concealed throne and two benches at the top of the show. The Incubator’s theatre in the round setting offers ample audience sightlines from everywhere in the room. There are eight hanging light bulbs which add mystery and intrigue to the rising tension of any given moment. The actors enter and exit from all four corners of the room which keeps the audience’s attention span continuously maintained throughout.

The contemporary setting works well. Colour choices throughout reveal a great deal about individual characters. For example, at the top of the show during the game, the characters are dressed in dark clothing as such that would be worn to a solemn event. Cordelia is dressed in earth-tone colours which reveals she is unlike everyone present at that moment. It was a clever way to maintain focus on appearance alone and who represents the goodness of the human heart.

The pacing is tight and that beautifully works for this three-hour running time. There is a continued fluidity throughout which made the transitions seamless from one scene to the next. As one scene concludes and actors leave the stage, there is an immediate entrance with no lag time in between. Bravo for this choice and sustaining it throughout.

There are some riveting performances that must be seen and heard. The conversational dialogue just naturally and believably flows from one character to the next. The iambic pentameter verse sounds so good to the ear.

Scott Wentworth regally commands the stage each time he appears as the foolish Lear. From his childlike petulance at the top of the show to the powerless king who rails he “is a man more sinned against than sinning”, and then to a man who issues others into the hovel and out of the storm first before himself, Wentworth delivers a masterclass acting performance of strength, endurance, and credibility of character. It’s one not to be missed.

David Mackett’s Gloucester offers a poignant performance to balance Wentworth’s impending and spiralling doom. Mackett fascinatingly utilizes his eyes a great deal to convey his feelings and emotions which makes what happens to him most heartbreaking.

Melanie Leon and Madelaine Hodges become dominatingly powerful and vicious as Goneril and Regan. It was a nice touch by Wentworth as the father touches both ladies in such a way that he did indeed want to convey sterility in his two eldest daughters to prevent childbirth. Breanne Tice’s Cordelia is gentle and sweet. Deivan Steele’s Edmund comes across as deliciously nasty right to his very soul. Ngabo Nabea’s portrayal of Poor Tom (Edgar disguised) is engrossing to watch when he first sees his father, Gloucester. Nabea moved around the stage in what appeared to be chess-like movements that intriguingly battered between closeness and distance.

Mairi Babb is a strong and genteel Kent, most certainly in the final moments of the play. Steven Hao’s haughty Duke of Burgundy becomes a reminder of how money and wealth can cloud over what is truly beautiful, good, and honourable.

As husbands Albany and Cornwall, Ben Yoganathan and Daniel Briere do appear initially shocked at the way in which Lear responds to Cordelia’s banishment from the kingdom. Yet we see two very different types of men: Yoganathan’s nobility regarding Goneril’s treachery and threatening to shove a damning letter in her mouth regarding her faithfulness as a wife emitted silent applause from me. Briere’s despicably brutal treatment of Gloucester later also elicited silent applause from me again as Cornwall deservedly receives recognition for the horrible atrocity he has committed.

Several of the actors play dual and sometimes triple roles. Thankfully, Julia Lish-Napidus’s bubbleheaded Fool in the beginning never remains like that after witnessing what happens to her master. Lish-Napidus’s Fool delivers the sage advice of someone who has endured the harsh trials of life just like her father. Tristan Claxton’s Oswald surprisingly came across to me as someone who is more than just a servant to his mistress, Goneril.

At one point, Breanne Tice plays Curan. What worked extremely well when this occurred? The scene involved both Goneril and Regan and there was the mention of Cordelia’s armed forces in France. It appears as if Cordelia is present in the scene watching over what her sisters are plotting. Again, a nice touch to have an actor play a dual role.

Final Thought: Hindsight being 20-20, I really wish I had students now to encourage them to see this ‘King Lear’.

Shakespeare BASH’d’s production is a winning and top-notch adaptation directed with a clear vision by James Wallis and performed by a winning cast.

See it.

Running time: approximately three hours with one intermission.

‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ runs to February 26 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto. For tickets, call the Box Office at (416) 538-0988. To learn more about Shakespeare BASH’d, visit

‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ by William Shakespeare

Directed by James Wallis
Sound Designer: Matt Nish-Lapidus
Stage Manager: Milena Fera
Assistant Director: Kate Martin

Performers: Mairi Babb, Daniel Briere, Tristan Claxton, Steven Hao, Madelaine Hodges, Melanie Leon, David Mackett, Ngabo Nabea, Julia Nish-Lapidus, Deivan Steele, Breanne Tice, Scott Wentworth, Ben Yoganathan

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