It is unusual for certain great dramas— Shakespeare’s King Lear and Sophocles’s Oedipus among them — to be performed by younger actors. Those tragedies contain a sonorous beauty and depth of insight that usually take a great deal of time and experience to appreciate. Despite that, Robin Phillips, director of the Stratford Festival’s Young Company, has given both Lear and Oedipus to his youthful charges as part of their summer season. And many of the actors—the majority of them in their 20s—triumph over the challenge. Their excellent work on the two plays (and on the 18th-century satire The Critic,
which is double-billed with Oedipus) serves up some stiff competition for the southern Ontario festival’s regular company, which recently added The Three Musketeers and the 1956 musical Irma La Douce to Stratford’s 1988 season. The Young Company has not been left entirely alone with the momentous challenge of Lear. Phillips has given the title role to Stratford’s great veteran William Hutt, who delivers a performance of intelligence and passionate detail. Rather than playing Lear as the usual loudly raging tyrant, Hutt lends the old man a frailty from which his fierceness strikes unexpectedly, like the pathetic snarls of a dying animal. No one else in the cast can touch Hutt’s performance, but Marion Adler and Susan Coyne (as his daughters Goneril and Regan) and Peter Donaldson (as his loyal noble, Kent) lead a production that consistently offers the joy of hearing Shakespeare’s greatest verse delivered with thoughtful clarity. For all its attractiveness, Stratford’s current Lear is flawed by sensibilities and voices untempered by time. The same weakness is evident in Oedipus, the fifth-century-BC tragedy about a king who sets out to free his city from a curse—only to discover that he himself is its cause. The production sometimes gives the impression of straining for profundity, but it possesses one overrid-
ing compensation: Phillips’s brilliant staging. He virtually turns his actors into a company of modern dancers. Clad in simple black or white bodysuits, they depict the plague-ridden citizens of Thebes by writhing on the stage. From this chaotic yet expertly managed mass of bodies, the principal actors rise up like spectres to make their speeches— then sink mysteriously back. It is a far cry from the poetry of Oedipus to the brittle wit of The Critic, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s lampoon of playwrights, hack critics, actors and much else. But the Young Company demonstrates its mastery of the other end of the dramatic scale with a nicely measured robustness. The range that the actors are developing under Phillips is impressive. Also in a comic vein, the main company is mounting a charming revival of Irma La Douce—known to most people in its nonmusical film version starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. It is a sentimental tale of a golden-hearted Parisian prostitute, Irma (Susan Henley), and her lover, a law student called Nestor (Scott Wentworth). Jealous of Irma’s customers, Nestor masquerades as a rich old gentleman who monopolizes her attentions. But when he tires of the ruse and pretends to murder his aged rival, he is sent to prison. Things get even sillier, but with Jeff Hyslop’s direction
and choreography, Henley’s kittenish beauty and Wentworth’s low-key geniality, Irma La Douce is a delight.
whether the aim is a
temporary escape from life or a free fall into its deeper mysteries.
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