WHEN CHRISTOPHER Plummer strode out as King Lear on the opening night of Stratford’s much-anticipated new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, no one applauded as they so often do at the Festival when a celebrity appears. Never mind that at 72, Plummer remains one of Stratford’s favourite alumni, an international film and theatre star whose career, after some decades in the doldrums, has recovered magnificently of late. Never mind that the crowd seemed poised to welcome him home to the stage where he’d first triumphed almost half a century ago as the valiant young king, Henry V. There was simply no Chris Plummer in sight. Right from the start, he’d disappeared so completely into his role that the audience was swept into marvelling silence by this weirdly intent, bearded figure who hunches over a map of his kingdom like a miser over his gold, prior to dividing his realm among his daughters. When, a few minutes later, he erupts in hair-raising fury at the apparent ingratitude of his youngest, Cordelia (Sarah McVie), it’s clear we’re in the presence of a great actor giving the performance of his life.
There is always something uncanny in the finest acting, something that transcends technique in a controlled blaze of intensity. The effect, for the audience, is electrifying because the character being portrayed seems not only real, but superreal. Plummer has this kind of stage presence as a natural gift, but in the current show it’s magnified by his success in meeting Shakespeare’s complexity with a performance as intelligent as it is intense. After that first outburst, he recedes a little, before breaking out in a later scene to level his chilling curse against his eldest daughter, Goneril (Domini Blythe). Then he recedes again, only to come on again, stronger than ever, like a surf attacking the shore. And so he goes on, rhyth-
mically entering the depths of his madness in a way that never degenerates into monotonous roaring, but which comprises instead a terrible, gradual revelation. We are held spellbound by Plummer’s Lear, because his agony has so many colours, such tonal variety. And because the man is so physically present. This is not a stiffly regal Lear, but one of almost leprechaunish vitality. He skips, he underlines his speeches with body English: this suffering old man is more alive than anyone else in his kingdom.
Too bad the same can’t be said of the actors playing most of the 10 or so major supporting roles. Because in many respects, this production is a major disappointment. Stratford veterans such as Blythe, Lucy Peacock, Benedict Campbell and James Blendick—all of whom have done outstanding work in other shows— simply go through the motions. Jonathan Miller, the English director who is famously easy on his actors in rehearsal, has not made them do the hard, detailed work of fully inhabiting their characters. Among the few exceptions amidst the barrage of frenetic but unconvincing speechi-
fying are Barry MacGregor, who creates a bleakly petrified Fool with a voice that could cut coal, and Maurice Godin, who turns the murderous Edmund into a thrillingly precise (and often deeply humorous) study in the pitfalls of unbridled rapacity. Confiding in the audience like the villain of an old melodrama, he makes us uncomfortably complicit in his vicious ambitions.
And so Plummer is left largely alone to carry the greatness of Shakespeare’s play. It’s like watching your favourite player rack up a hat trick in the final game of the Stanley Cup—while his teammates let twice as many goals slip into their own net. How heart-rending to think what might have been had the others done their part. Yet this production will still shine in memory, thanks to Plummer and the few actors who actually showed up. Just before his final appearance and death, we hear Lear cry out offstage, over the body of his beloved Cordelia. Plummer makes the moment devastating—he pierces as few performers ever have to the stark yet mysteriously radiant vision at the core of this tragedy. The audience may not have applauded Christopher Plummer at his first entry. But when he emerged for his curtain call, the place went mad. I?]
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