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King Lear: Bare but Beautiful

Courtney Eckerle | Friday, September 11, 2009

The lights rose as five players stood onstage, bare except for their five chairs and a few props, ready to introduce their characters. Terence Wilton played Lear, the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany. Richard Neale was Edgar and Edmund and Caroline Devlin took the part of Regan and Fool. Rina Mahoney played Goneril and Cordelia and Dale Rapley was Gloucester and Kent. They were dressed simply in plain contemporary garb, except for Lear, who looked every inch a king in a samurai-like robe with a camouflage pattern and a crown that at first glance looked like old Mardi Gras beads.
Right from the beginning of the action, the extensive and artful use of the few props was incredibly impressive. The three sisters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia were each represented by a different colored Pashmina scarf, and the actors created a royal entrance with a drum and thunder with a tin can and rubber band. Those who find Shakespeare stuffy and difficult to comprehend need not fear this show. The tragedy is at its meatiest when stripped to its bare bones.
A production of a Shakespearian play with only five actors may seem impossible, and it was definitely enthralling to watch unfold. In a world where we are handed every answer to a question on a movie screen, the bareness and simplicity of the “King Lear” stage was a refreshing change that allowed your imagination to fill in the blanks in a way that personalized the performance for each audience member.
“It’s a different kind of challenge [having five actors]. Most of us have to find a journey for two characters or more,” said cast member Dale Rapley, who has been acting professionally for 22 years. His characters each grew throughout the performance, culminating in the spectacularly sorrowful demise of poor Gloucester.
Throughout the show it often seemed like one player was chosen for two roles specifically to show the dualities of both characters. Neale, as brothers Edmund and Edgar, was able to change between dandy Edgar and villainous, melancholy Edmund with a sinister furrow of his brow, although the black and red leather Michael Jackson-esque glove he wore as Edmund helped as well. As Edgar, he meekly simpered and later elastically writhed with madness, where as Edmund he spoke strongly and sensually, planting his body so firmly on the stage one would think he wore his almost constant frown from the strain of it.
Neale was also very impressively able to pull off the admittedly difficult task of having a fatal sword fight with himself, where he manipulated a broom handle as aptly as the real thing. The conversations between Edgar and Edmund made the audience forget that Neale was onstage speaking to himself. If he performed on the street people would only stare to wonder at the intensity of the conversation between two men, not at a single man having a Gollum-like dialogue with himself.
Mahoney was able to switch effortlessly between sadistic Goneril and virtuous Cordelia, conveying their contrasting motives as quickly as it took her to switch Goneril’s pink Pashmina scarf for Cordelia’s white one. Cordelia’s voice and movements were much softer than the storm Goneril was trying to raise up with her quick tongue and actions.
Wilton captured audiences hearts as King Lear, whom he took from sarcastic blustering to heartbreakingly bonkers after he came to the realization, as most fathers do, that the behavior of his children is completely, and in his case, epically out of his control.
“I think [“King Lear”] is the most brilliant play, possibly the greatest Shakespeare wrote. It is a play about life, struggles we all have – family, power, poverty – and how we struggle through adversity,” said Rapley.
Whatever adversity is in “King Lear,” there is nothing adverse to be found in this performance of it. The Actors from the London Stage have once again brought a mesmerizing, clever and all-around spectacular bit of Shakespeare to Notre Dame.