Wednesday, June 7, 2000 Back The Halifax Herald Limited
Tantramar Theatre, 23 youngsters, conquer King Lear

Tom McCoag / Amherst Bureau
Tantramar Theatre's recent production of King Lear played to hundreads in the Cumberland County area. In the cast were, Matt Smith, Rick Locke and Jessica Wile.

By Brian Bauld / Guest Reviewer THEATRE REVIEW

King Lear is a play about a legendary king of pre-Christian England who arrogantly dispossesses himself of his most beloved daughter and goes mad.

He is accompanied in his consequent suffering by his Fool who is a professional madman.

He meets in a wilderness of his own making a dispossessed son who uses the disguise of a madman.

Together, this motley band of madmen propel Shakespeare's most terrible and most difficult tragedy - a play so terrible that Victorian audiences tried to improve the ending and so difficult that critics have said it cannot be acted.

Yet, here in Amherst, we have a band of largely amateur actors of barely and not-quite teenage years tackling the Mount Everest of the theatre.

This leads to the question: Has Charles Follini, the director of this impossible project, gone mad too?

Well, no.

Rather, Follini and Bette Douglas, producer of Tantramar Theatre Productions, have served both Shakespeare and their audience wonderfully well with five performances in the old Post Office building last week.

Essential to their success was persuading Beverley True to take the part of King Lear. And magisterial is the way she handles the part, choosing to emphasize the sensitive and pitiable Lear over the violent patriarch.

From Lear's mystification over Cordelia's refusal to submit to his childish vanity, to his pitiful bobbing back and forth between the two monsters who are his daughters, to the weighty madness of his hayfield speeches on justice and mercy, to the judgment-day horror of the final scene, it is True's King Lear who acts as the "strong central cedar pole" to this tent of wonders.

And more wonders there are. True's marvellous powers of elocution have spread throughout the cast, and whether it was the diminutive and touching Cordelia played by 12-year-old Jodie Wood, or any of the long list of Edgars and Edmunds, Gonerils and Regans, Kents and Albanys, the speakers delivered their speeches with a deeply moving appreciation for the poetry of the Shakespearean line.

The Thursday morning performance had an audience of 110 high school students who watched in some amazement, without a cough, whisper, or shifted chair, as 23 of their juniors from grade four to grade nine, all performing serious roles, carried themselves with conviction and panache.

If you think you can - you can, or so this production would seem to show.

Northrop Frye says that literature can never exceed the quality of King Lear, and here was a large band of young teens performing a full-length version of the play - convincingly!

Stage manager Sarah Ironsides managed the scene changes like clockwork. Tricky reimaging of numerous parts took place with skilled dual readings as one actor took over for the other in midsentence - all flawlessly.

The insolence of Oswald's cocked head (Jana Clayton), the razor-cut hair and tongue of Matthew J. Smith's stony-hearted Cornwall, the goofiness of William Shatford's Mad Tom, the soap opera vixen look of sisters Gallant and Moores, the Li'l Rascal impishness of Chris Meaney's Edmund are samples of the production's delights.

The play timed in just over two hours - a miracle in itself - with only the occasional sense of rushed, or merely remembered, lines.

Most important, the actors were clearly thrilled with Shakespeare. For some of them, this was their fourth Shakespeare production - and they are not yet in high school.

Apart from the initial pleasure of hearing Shakespeare performed so effectively and enthusiastically is the cultural service done in reminding us of Shakespeare's greatness.

Such art can teach us to say with Gloucester (energetically played by Rick Locke): "I see it feelingly."

The skill and excitement of these actors gives the lie to those who would delete Shakespeare from a school's curriculum because students find him too difficult, or fail to see his relevance.

Let leaders steep themselves in Lear's progress from arrogance to mercy, let parents and children consider the play's saints and monsters, let those who suffer feel with Edgar, let friendship and loyalty be modeled in Kent.

Whatever scene you turn to displays the deepest relevance and the deepest pleasure.

What Follini and his company have done is of enormous cultural significance.

So, deep bows of appreciation to the Gonerils and Regans smiling venom in their purple and red; to the technicolour Fool who reminds us what we all always are; to the sweet filial affection of the Edgars and Cordelias; to the almost heartless Edmunds for reminding us of the need for custom; and to the shared madness of Tantramar Theatre for imagining it could be done.

Brian Bauld is a teacher at Amherst Regional High School.

Copyright 2000 The Halifax Herald Limited