The Canadian Act

By way of brief introduction: my name is Noah Millman. I used to blog here. The best thing I’ve written (in my own opinion) is here. I live in Brooklyn, and I have no very clear idea why Reihan has invited me to join this group, but I am certainly flattered that he has.

I suppose it’s only appropriate, since I was probably invited here to write about politics and policy, that my first post of substance be entirely culture-related, and that, since this blog is called The American Scene, my first post be about a theatrical production in . . . Canada.

On Memorial Day my wife and I attended the opening of King Lear at the Stratford Festival of Canada, directed by and starring Brian Bedford. (We're going back again this coming week to see five other productions; I'll post reviews of those upon returning.) This is the first opening of the festival that we have ever attended, but we've been going to Stratford continuously for a decade and (in my wife's case) nearly continuously for over 25 years. And when you've been involved with a theater company for so long, you partake of new pleasures unavailable to newcomers: the pleasure of seeing actors develop as they take on new roles, of seeing multiple takes on the same classic texts by different directors, etc. (Reviews of most of the Stratford shows I've seen in the past few years are on my old blog; you can go here for some of the 2005 reviews, and click links therein to go back further, if you care to do so.) And so a lot of the appeal to me in this particular production was going to be what Brian Bedford was going to do with the role. Bedford is primarily known these days as a comic actor, in particular a specialist in Moliere (I was enormously impressed by his Orgon in Joe Dowling's production of Tartuffe from a few years ago). But I was also blown away by his Timon, which I saw in New York in 1993; and his Angelo in Measure for Measure (Stratford, 1975), and his Leontes (Stratford, 1978), neither remotely a comic role, are both legendary (though both are from well before my time, so I cannot attest personally to the veracity of the legends). I don't believe Bedford has ever attempted Lear before, and I was extremely interested to see both how he would play the role and how he would direct the play.


There are two decisions that a director has to make in the very first scene that shape the entire play. First, is Lear entirely in his right mind when he starts, only to go mad as a consequence of his treatment at the hands of his daughters? - Or is he a bit doddering from the beginning, making rash decisions because he has begun to descend into senile dementia? Second, does Cordelia resolve to "love, and be silent" because she is appalled by Lear's love test, and lets him know that she is appalled by flouting his obvious wishes? - Or does she think her answer will *pass* the love test because it is not feigning like her sisters? (Note that the love test that suitors to Portia in The Merchant of Venice must pass to win her hand works this way: if you choose the gold or silver casket, you fail the test, but if you choose base lead then you are clearly the sort who sees "inner beauty" and deserve the prize. So it wouldn't be crazy for Cordelia to assume that her plain speaking would win the prize, if you wante to direct it that way.)

Bedford chooses to make Lear sane and Cordelia obstinate, which I think are both the better choices. His Lear sits in full regalia upon a throne, every inch a king, and has quite plainly already decided on his course of action: to divide the kingdom, with equal shares to Goneril and Regan and the best share for Cordelia. The love test is not a "test" at all: it's a formal display to justify a decision already made and, plausibly, to humiliate his other daughters. (The text indicates that the decision has already been made and hints at a late change in his plans: there is dialogue between Kent and Gloucester before Lear appears remarking that it had been expected that Lear would make Albany Regent, but that he had decided at the last minute to give Albany and Cornwall equal shares; since Lear in fact reserves the best of his lands for Cordelia, the equality between Albany and Cornwall is an equality of subordination, and I wonder whether Lear's change of heart regarding Albany reflects on Lear's estimation of Albany's character or of Goneril's. But I digress.) Lear is quite plainly sane, and his love test is a cruel play for public consumption not a sign of his own neediness - he is not begging for love; he's showing off.


This is a very strong opening, and it sets the tone for a generally strong production. Bedford's Lear is not terrifying; when he warns Kent, "come not between the dragon and his wrath" he speaks the line coldly, not with fiery rage. Bedford is more basilisk than dragon, turning opponents to stone rather than burning them to a crisp. His power is in his office, not his person. Cordelia, meanwhile, played by Sara Topham, is quite plainly trying to teach her father some manners in her famous response of "nothing;" she seems not to understand that in her determination to teach her father a public lesson, she is out to humiliate him as surely as he is out to embarrass her and her sisters. She reveals herself to be very much her father's daughter; her obstinacy in refusing to play his game is as foolish as his insistence in playing it, and thus we have a true tragedy in the Aristotelean sense, sprung from hamartia, a flaw or mistake that is the dark side, in effect, of a prized virtue. It's a generally fine performance by Topham, very reminiscent of her Katherine of France in Henry V from 2001. She is less strong in the scenes where she is more vulnerable - particularly after being captured by Edmund in Act V - but I would rather a feisty Cordelia who is not so good at being weak than an angelic and sweet Cordelia who is not so good at being strong, and anyhow, she excels in her most important scene after the opening, the recognition scene when Lear awakes in her camp, and in her most important lines after her opening "nothing" when she contradicts her father yet again, saying she has "no cause, no cause" to hate him. If those lines don't bring tears to your eyes, then you have seen a very poor Cordelia indeed, and Topham does not fail here.

Her elder sisters are finely played as well, Goneril, icily, by Wenna Shaw; Regan, oleaginously, by Wendy Robie. I was particularly pleased by the way they handle the scene that closes Act II, when they shut Gloucester's doors on the raging Lear, leaving him out in the storm. As Gloucester points out, this is tantamount to homicide, it being very reasonable to assume that an eighty-year-old man left out in such a storm without protection would not survive the night. Goneril and Regan can be seen swallowing both their hurt and the last vestiges of filial sentiment, visibly hardening their hearts against the man they can finally no longer abide. It is vital, I think, for the evil sisters to be seen consciously choosing evil, seeking their father's death fully aware of what they are doing, and knowing they are doing evil. This is the point when they shift from trying to subdue Lear to trying to destroy him, and the audience must see that shift. In this production, they do.

The other key members of Lear's train, Kent and the Fool, are played, respectively by Peter Donaldson and Bernard Hopkins. Donaldson makes for a rough-hewn Kent; he seems more himself in disguise as a common soldier than he does when vested as appropriate to his rank. I regret only that he does nothing to disguise his voice, as the text directs him to do. And Hopkins is a wonderfully melancholy Fool, playing off Bedford's rather distracted Lear with perfect timing. My only objection to his Fool, indeed, is no objection to his performance at all: it is that his exit from the play is announced but not explained. He simply marches off stage during the storm after declaiming his last line, "and I'll go to bed at noon." Has he actually abandoned Lear? That is very hard to imagine, and runs counter to the text, which has the Fool help to remove Lear from the stage after he falls asleep (a scene that is cut entirely); in this production Lear walks offstage one way, into Poor Tom's hovel, while the Fool exits in the opposite direction. Yet, if he is to be understood to be abandoning Lear, then it is very puzzling to put no emotion into his exit. I am genuinely perplexed as to what Bedford the director was trying to communicate with this exit. But, again, this is no comment on Hopkins's performance, which is strong.

Dion Johnstone plays Edmund, the most fearsome of Shakespeare's Marlovian anti-heroes. The trick for Edmund is to win our affection from the beginnin even as his very first act is to falsely accuse his brother of plotting to murder his father. Johnstone, a lithe and nimble actor with a dancer's body habitus, achieves this dramatic sympathy; we are drawn to him as the carnival audience is to the pather who replaces the hunger artist in the Kafka fable. Scott Wentworth's Gloucester is a plain fool, as Bedford's Lear is not, and this is a much more acceptable choice in Gloucester than it would be in Lear (indeed, Gloucester must be a bit dull to be so easily duped by Edmund - and the fact that Edmund embarks on his course with utter confidence suggests that he knows this about his father). And Edgar, played by Gareth Potter, is none too swift himself at the start (as, again, he must be to be fooled into drawing his sword on Edmund, providing ocular proof of his own treachery in his father's eyes).

All three actors start strong and deepen their performances as the play wears on. Edmund sports ever-finer attire in each successive scene, appearing physically to swell into his maturity (very little time has passed in the play from beginning to end, but Edmund has somehow gained about 20 pounds and ten years of gravitas by the time he faces off against his brother in Act V). Potter is less physically repulsive as Poor Tom than was Evan Biuling in the 2002 Stratford production of the play (he has no thorns poking out of his flesh, for one thing), but he is more of a physical actor, writhing almost as if he were Gollum and screwing his eyes up in his head like a real stage lunatic. And Wentworth's Gloucester, blinded, is, I must say, more heartbreaking than even Lear is in the final scene of the play.

One moment I especially loved: the scene in Act V when the forces of Cordelia and her sisters do battle. Cordelia loses, of course, and is captured, along with her father, the King. The battle takes place off-stage; Edgar leaves Gloucester leaning against a pillar onstage throughout, alone; we hear the battle, but see nothing, "seeing" the scene, as it were, through Gloucester's sightless eyes. Beford stages this in a traditional manner, very close to the text, but he draws it out; although the moment is brief on the clock, it feels like Wentworth is leaning against his pillar for an eternity, listening to the wars of the world. It is a very finely wrought moment in this production, the finest moment Wentworth has. His face is joyful as he listens to the battle, and we wonder whether he is with us or no - is the look of joy Edgar's medicine finally working on his despair; or has he willed his mind into the battle on the side of the King, and enjoying the fantasy of life and the return of young blood to his fighting limbs; or is he simply confused, as he so often is, and thinks Cordelia and the King are winning? Perhaps the last, as when Edgar rushes back onstage to let him know the tragic outcome of the battle Gloucester's customary look of perplexity returns; but the moment remains in the mind's eye of the blind old man smiling at the clang of arms on armor and the roar of a battle neither he nor we can see.

Bedford does make one big directorial decision that I disagreed with, and it affects the performances generally, including especially his own. I mentioned that Bedford is especially loved for his comic timing, which is indeed impeccable. It must have been a deliberate decision, then, to step on or, in extreme cases, cut any line in the play that might provoke laughter. "FOOL: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason./LEAR: Because they are not eight./FOOL: Yes indeed, thou wouldst make a good fool." - stepped on. "LEAR: I am a king, my masters, know you that?/GENTLEMAN: You are a royal one and we obey you./LEAR: Then there's life in't." - stepped on. "KENT: I am come/To bid my King and master aye good night./Is he not here?/ALBANY: Great thing of us forgot!/Speak, Edmund, where's the King?" - cut. Even some famous dramatic moments - most notably Lear's "reason not the need" speech - are stepped on, started in a rushed manner, as if Bedford were afraid of giving Lear the time to absorb what he has heard before reacting, for fear of generating a comical reaction. And the climax of that speech - "I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall - I will do such things -/What they are yet I know not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth!" - stepped on, too rushed. And again, I suspect, because it is a potentially comical moment.

Yet, as Peter Ustinov wondered, who's to say we ought not to laugh at Lear? Lear is funny - bitterly so, but funny all the same. Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he put laugh lines in his most pathetic tragedy. Macbeth is emptier; Hamlet more claustrophobic; Othello more horrible; but Lear is the saddest, because Cordelia could have been saved, should have been saved, in any world with justice would have been saved; we are so sure of this that for generations we re-wrote the ending to save her. You don't need to smother laughter to feel the tragedy; you will feel the tragedy, the sheer awfulness of it, if you and the actors have any feeling in you.


I have mentioned the two key choices in the opening sequence: is Lear sane or already "distracted"; is Cordelia defiant or trying to please. Another key decision that must be made at the opening is: how much is this a political play, and how much domestic? Lear is both a tragedy about patriarchy and a tragedy about monarchy, the political system that operates by analogy with patriarchy. By setting the play in the early 17th century, and playing up the ceremony of the opening sequence, Bedford signals that this is to be a political Lear. This, again, is my preferred choice (though a domestic Lear - like the one that starred Alvin Epstein at La Mama last year can be very moving). But if Lear is a political play, we must ask what is its politics? There is a choice to be made, I think, in how to interpret Lear (the play) as a commentary on the institution of monarchy. Does the play simply undermine the ideology of monarchy? Or does it deepen that ideology in an interesting way?

On the heath, when Lear has been entreated to go into Poor Tom's hovel - just before he encounters Poor Tom, in fact - Lear has a speech, said on his knees (though Bedford does not kneel - I wonder if he was having knee problems? He does not kneel before Cordelia in the recognition scene either):

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Northrop Frye makes much of this moment in an essay on Lear, connecting it with the doctrine of the King's Two Bodies: the king has a fleshy body like other men, and a body politic which is a symbolic representation of the commonwealth as a whole. Lear's actions at the beginning of the play - dividing the kingdom - reflected, arguably, a confusion between these two bodies. According to the doctrine, the royal title related to the King's body politic, and not his body physic, and hence could not be disposed of with the discretion applicable to personal property. When Lear undertakes to divide the kingdom, then, he may be illegally depriving the rightful heir - Goneril - of her lawful title, and he may think he can do this because he is confused as to who he is, thinking kingship inheres in him rather than being a biproduct of his office. This confusion is the dominant theme of his dialogues with the Fool in the first two acts.

But what then does Lear mean when, in Act IV, he says he is "every inch a king"? By now, he has learned a thing or two about the disjunction between what he thought monarchy was and what it is; he has learned the difference between the two bodies, and that he had, in fact, divested himself of kingship in Act I scene i. As Frye sees it, if at the start Lear has, erroneously, arrogated the power of the body politic to his body physic, and tried to dispose of the state as if it were personal property, on the heath, divested of his body politic and the accompanying "pomp", he begins to perform the function of the body politic in his body physic. He has taken too little care of the wretched of his kingdom; now he will, Christ-like, descend to their level of existence, embody their afflictions in his own physical body. This is a kind of incarnation: if before his body politic was transcendent, now it is immanent.

If Lear is "every inch a king" in Act IV, he is a very different sort of king than in Act I. Bedford, when he speaks this line, spits it. The "every inch a king" line is embedded in a series of speeches that do more to undermine the ideology of monarchy than to incarnate it, climaxing with the bitter line, "a dog's obeyed in office." As Bedford plays these speeches, I get the feeling that he doesn't buy into Frye's notion about the inversion of the role of Lear's two bodies. Bedford's Lear has, indeed, learned much truth in his time on the heath - but he has not been endowed with some new charism by virtue of his physical identification with the wretched of his kingdom. Rather, he has come to see through the lies that undergird the ideology of his formerly regal state. Others have noted a connection between Lear and Richard II, both kings who through misunderstanding the nature of their office and its power come to grief. In several scenes - the opening, the Act IV madness scenes, the captivity scene with Cordelia in Act V - this connection is especially strong, and Beford's portrayal of Lear plays up this connection in my mind. Lear, when he divests himself of his office, becomes a naked soul, a social nullity, and as with Richard II, his loss makes him understand the reality of his prior state much more clearly than when he held it. But Richard stops there; through losing his state and becoming naked, he becomes a quite impressive poet and a pathetic human being, but he does not transcend this human progress; by resignation, he becomes more truly human, but not more truly regal. Lear, some would say - Frye says - achieves more than this, achieves a kind of apotheosis on the heath. Bedford's Lear stops where Richard does. I think that's a perfectly defensible choice, but it has some broader impact on the meaning of the play.


Bedford makes a number of cuts and alterations to the play, some (such as cutting Burgundy, France's rival suitor for Cordelia's hand) apparently to simplify a scene and speed the action. But the most significant cuts are to Edmund in the play's final scene. In both the Quarto and the Folio, Edmund says, apropos of Goneril's and Regan's deaths, "I was contracted to them both; all three/Now marry in an instant," and then, a few lines later, still musing on their deaths, "Yet Edmund was beloved/The one the other poisoned for my sake/And after slew herself." These lines are denied Edmund in Bedford's production. The consequence is to radically change the motivation for Edmund's change of heart. As written, what moves Edmund "some good . . . to do in spite of mine own nature" is the realization that he was beloved - deeply beloved, beloved enough that Goneril would kill her sister and herself out of love for him. He cannot be cynical about this love unto death, and it causes him to try to save Cordelia from the doom he has commanded. Without these lines, the only motivation left is his own fatal wounding by his brother, Edgar, and the recognition that "the wheel has come full circle," that his evil subterfuge has only brought his doom. Edmund, in Bedford's cutting of the scene, repents because he sees that God is just . . . only to be confronted (in the corpse of Cordelia) with the firmest evidence against that proposition that theater can produce.

This seriously weakens and reduces the play. Lear is structurally doubled, with two foolish old men, two instances of sibling rivalry, two instances of children falsely banished, two instances of fathers betrayed unto death by the unbanished children they thought were true, and two instances of fathers redeemed by the good children returned from banishment against decree and in peril of their lives. One way in which the two plots are distinguished is that Gloucester is saved by lies (his son, Edgar, deceives him to cure him of despair), while Lear perishes of the truth (he goes mad again when Cordelia is murdered); another is that the good son in the Gloucester plot survives and triumphs, while the good daughter in the Lear plot perishes (and for no good reason, merely for lack of time to save her). But there is another way in which the plots may be distinguished. Lear is the hero of the Lear plot. Gloucester, however, is not the hero of the Gloucester plot. Edmund is. His story needs its own arc and its own conclusion. And because the plots of the two plays conclude together, we know whether "the wheel has come full circle" is a plausible moral for the play as a whole. And it isn't: Cordelia is dead. For Edmund to repent for this, then, is for him to withdraw into a pitiful narcissism: he lost, and therefore God is just? Well, who says this play is about you? What about Cordelia? If he fails to save her, as he does, will he repent of his repenting? "Edmund is beloved" undermines everything Edmund has averred from the start of the play, presents us with the last-minute triumph of an entirely different set of values. That triumph is perforce limited in scope, as Cordelia is dead; Edmund's repentence does come too late, as repentance often does in the real world. But without that line, there is no other set of values to triumph, only a different view of how reality works - and, with Cordelia's corpse, we know that reality does not work that way.

The final scene, with key lines of Edmund's cut, is the weakest in the entire production. Lear whispers his howls, does not lean over Cordelia (again, I suspect a bad knee) to see if she retains a breath of life, but wanders the stage distracted and, in the end, is comforted at death with a final, false vision of Cordelia, alive somewhere in the middle distance. It works anyway; it can't but work, and Bedford's pain is manifest. But as a director, Bedford flinched a bit at this moment, and I think his flinching here is related to the other decisions - to play down Lear's interaction with Poor Tom, to cut Edmund's key line, to step on or cut lines that drew a laugh - in this generally excellent production that I found diminished the play, closing it down rather than opening it up to its full potential.

But I hate to end on a negative note. This is a strongly conceived Lear, one grounded in very firm opinions about the play, directed by and starring one of the greatest living classical actors. Definitely go see it. It is a vastly better Lear than the disappointing 2002 production with Christopher Plummer; it is well-acted, beautifully-costumed - there is no perfect Lear, nor can be, as every directorial choice precludes some other, equally valid and equally important choice, and yet it must be staged to be seen. So go see it.