The South Carolina Shakespeare Company opens their fall season with King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. George Bernard Shaw once said "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” and one can definitely see where he’s coming from. Madness, betrayal, suffering, war, and death are all over this play, and the body count is nothing short of impressive.
The elderly King Lear (Chris Cook) is ready for retirement. He plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril (Raia Hirsch), Regan (Sara Blanks), and Cordelia (Katie Mixon.) But there’s a catch: the largest quantity of land will go to the daughter who can prove she loves him most. Goneril and Regan are perfectly happy to deliver speeches of loyalty and devotion that drip with aspartame. But Cordelia remains stoic, saying she has nothing to compare her love to. Her frankness leads to her father disowning her and splitting his lands between Regan and Goneril. The King of France, impressed with her honesty offers to marry her:
“Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken; and most lov'd, despis'd! Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon. Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.”
And they hop off to France.
Lear quickly learns how fickle filial loyalty can be. As soon as he relinquishes his power, he loses all respect from both of his daughters. They chide him for being raucous, and force him to let the majority of his entourage go. This shocking fall from power and dignity leads Lear to become more and more insane as the play progresses. The former King quickly learns that his only true friends are his now-disguised former pal Kent (Tracy Steele) whom he banished for defending Cordelia, and his Fool (played by Jeff Driggers.)
Intermingled in this main plot is further drama with a troublemaking illegitimate son by the name of Edmund (Bobby Bloom) to the Earl of Gloucester (Richard Purday.) He tricks Gloucester - way too easily - into thinking his legitimate son Edgar (William Cavitt) plans to steal his estate. Eyeballs are removed, women are seduced, and lots of folks die in some pretty creative ways.
In this production of Lear, director Linda Khoury has assembled a large cast with varying skill levels and a curious array of accents. Cook is a vulnerable and powerful Lear, and he captures his descent into madness with an intensity that evokes sympathy. Hirsh and Blanks are appropriately evil as Goneril and Regan, and Mixon makes for a wonderful contrast as the honest and sincere Cordelia. Edmund gets some of the best lines in the play, and Bloom delivers them with acerbic intensity:
“Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom, and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?”
Driggers plays the Fool (see what I did there?) not so much as a clown, but as a terrified young man who grasps the gravity of a dangerous situation from which he must save his friend. There’s an urgency about this Fool that is an unexpected take on the character. Cavitt delivers one of the most challenging and high-energy performances in the play as the selfless, though hopelessly naive, Edgar.
A few members of the ensemble couldn’t quite pick an accent - which was distracting - but as I said before, this is a large cast and every actor’s performance can’t always be golden. At the preview performance I attended, there was a moment of nudity that I’m not altogether sure was simply a wardrobe malfunction. I can’t imagine bringing small children to something as heavy as a Shakespearean tragedy, however, so this might not be an issue for you. The key players do interesting work, and the SC Shakespeare Company takes a straightforward interpretation of King Lear to a few surprisingly creative places.
~ Jillian Owens
King Lear runs Wednesday, October 22 through Saturday, October 25 in the Amphitheatre in Finlay Park. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, and the Wednesday performance is free! For more information, visit http://www.shakespearesc.org/ .