‘Tis a wild night at King Lear at Bard on the Beach

On a stormy heath, an old king, mad with grief, laments the disloyalty of his two eldest daughters and the loss of of his youngest and most beloved as a consequence of his own foolish actions. The stage is set for the complexity of familial bonds behind palace walls, a story that becomes all too relatable as those walls begin to crumble around the cast of feuding noblemen and headstrong princesses.

This summer, Shakespeare's King Lear swaps a grim moorland for the green lawns of Vanier Park at the current season of Bard on the Beach. Directed by Dennis Garnhum, the play is a collaboration between Bard on the Beach and Theatre Calgary, where Garnhum is artistic director. Lear began rehearsals in February in Calgary and played in the city for five weeks to 25,000 people -- a huge success.

“It’s a play that I’ve wanted to do since I was 17,” said Garnhum, who has been working with Theatre Calgary for over 10 years. “It’s a play that’s always connected to me very deeply because it’s such a human play. I find this play so deeply beautiful because this man discovers so much by making one mistake that turns into several.”

Audiences will have an opportunity to be immersed in a set created for both the indoor proscenium of Theatre Calgary and the tent in which Bard on the Beach is held. The stage design was done by Vancouver theatre veteran Pam Johnson, who had to create a design that would be able to translate from one location to another, and also one play to another.

“Whenever you’re designing a show that Bard is involved in, you’re not designing for one show, you’re designing for two shows.... You have to make it as versatile as possible,” she said. In this case, Lear’s set must transform into the set for Comedy of Errors.

Garnhum’s vision for the design was to leave the play as it is. “My radical approach is to be very traditional,” he said.

Unlike the steam-punk set of the Comedy of Errors, Lear’s look is described by Johnson as having medieval-influenced lines, inspired from the Gothic tradition.

The set wasn’t the only thing that changed when the company moved the production from downtown Calgary to English Bay. Half the cast and most of the crew were replaced by local professionals. Garnhum was undaunted by the challenge. “I’m finding it thrilling actually, coming to Vancouver.... But King Lear, half of which happens outside on the heath and the storm, because we’re now in the tent and feeling the cool breeze on your face while the actors act, [it] is really delicious for this play, really delicious,” he said. “I knew about an hour into rehearsal, on the first day last week, I could tell this was going to be terrific.”

Lear is an iconic character, and for this kind of role, Garnhum had to cast someone who could carry the play between spaces and casts with strength. “I think the most exciting opportunity that we had was to have Ben Campbell play King Lear,” said Garnhum. “It’s always been his life dream to play the role, and that kind of centered everything of what we are doing."

Lear is a personal achievement for Garnhum, whose longtime dreams have been realized, and a point of pride for Johnson, who played mediator between two theater companies and two directors. Versatility, cooperation and dedication are the foundation of this production and there is no doubt that the passion will show in the performance. “It’s a team effort always,” said Johnson. “Bard has an amazing team, and miracles continue to happen down there.”

Garnhum is humble about his theatrical talents, and cites the Bard himself as the facilitator of such theatrical magic. “It has everything,” he said. “It’s tragic, it’s funny, it’s disturbing, it’s violent, it’s angry, it’s heartbreaking.... It’s one of the best pieces of theatre ever written. Ever.”