top of page

smART x Stratford Pt.1: "King Lear"

Paul Gross delivers a Lear of a lifetime


JUN 12, 2023 | ISSUE 12

Eddie Glen (centre) as Patsy with members of the company in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou
Gordon Patrick White (left) and Paul Gross with members of the company in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou

King Lear is about a man on the threshold of his twilight years. Many productions chose to cast Lear by an actor who is also at a moment of transition in his career. As they age, handsome men who have enjoyed playing romantic leads graduate from these characters to play their fathers or even grandfathers. Paul Gross, who makes his return after twenty years to the Stratford stage, is a perfect choice to take on the role of Shakespeare’s aged king. After a career playing leading men on television, most notably for his lead role as Constable Benton Fraser in the popular Canadian television series Due South, Gross both has the experience and skills, garnered through a productive and long career, to play the monumental titular role of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

The play begins with Lear demanding that his daughters express their love to him before he divides his kingdom as a part of him stepping down from his throne. The first two of his children, Reagan and Goneril, grandiloquently put into words their deep and unyielding affection for their father. Cordelia, Lear’s favorite child, boldly tells her father that her love cannot be put into words. Whether he was mad to begin with to ask for this petty performance from his daughters, or the perceived betrayal of his most beloved issue causes him to descend slowly into madness, we do not know. But mad he does become. And his descent is further fomented by Reagan and Goneril’s petty reduction of the entourage that a king — though no longer a ruler — has grown accustomed to enjoying.

Gross takes on the tragic role of Lear with humour, which becomes both necessary and refreshing considering the plays three-hour run time. Gross punctuates the descent into madness of an ageing king with biting laughter. He finds the comedy in the king’s daughter’s unnatural and ridiculous mistreatment of their father, which contrasts his horror and anger of what his daughters are capable of doing in the name of power. For their part, Reagan and Goneril, played by Dejah Dixon-Green and Shannon Taylor respectively, begin with feelings of sympathy for their ageing father only to turn cold with a lust for power and fear of losing their inherited territory.

D. Dixon-Green (centre) as Regan, R. Wilkie (right) and A. Alamian in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou

It is fitting that the production at the Stratford this season tells Shakespeare’s tragic story, both metaphorically and literally, in darkness and light. These themes are represented literally by Judith Bowden’s desolate, multi-tiered set, which includes dark, earth-textured walls that are sliced perpendicularly by bright, blinding fluorescent lines of white light. The effect of these lights is both to illuminate, but also to project shadows on the panelled doors or walls in which they are set. The most theatrical moments of Stratford’s production engage these set features. The Heath Scene is an intense moment of pathetic fallacy. Lear, cast out from his castle and the homes of his daughters into the untamed British countryside during an intense storm, has Gross topple a floor-to-ceiling column, creating a precarious path from up to down stage. As the storm rages, Gross crosses to centre stage, Lear is lit from above as hail drops from the fly, the light catching each small droplet of ice as it tumbles to the ground.

Paul Gross as King Lear in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.