King Lear – Hart House Theatre

Review by Dana LaceyBenjamin Blais and Thomas Gough from Hart House production of King Lear

Its hard to review a play by a dead genius, and King Lear is one of Shakespeare‘s best. If you’ve ever seen it before, you know three things: the banter is hilarious, the insults viciously entertaining and the script entirely too long.  The Hart House production stays pretty true to all of these things.

The ultra-brief plot: King Lear wants divide his kingdom to his three daughters, and as you can imagine some feelings end up hurt. Alliances are formed, evil plots are devised and disguises are worn, while Lear becomes increasingly senile. The action is oh-so-good, and the violence is cartoon worthy, full of sword fights and eye gouging (“out vile jelly!”).

If you don’t already know the story, its easy to get confused by Billy’s meandering plot lines and there’s a huge chunk in the middle where politics overtake the action.  The friend I brought really wished there were two intermissions. Full disclosure: I love this play and have seen it performed many times, but have never made it through an entire show without dozing off.

Director Jeremy Hutton seems to have found the the secret to keeping their audience alert: strobe lights. In his production of King Lear at U of T’s Hart House Theatre, lights and sound would flash briefly to reveal different tableaus of actors between scenes. The effect was beautiful staging and some good laughs.  It managed to connect the plot and keep my brain alert during the many (many) transitions. One of the best scenes of the evening–the death of the fool–was done in three simple flashes of light.

The show is definitely worth seeing, but if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, don’t expect a new or modern take. Despite the tech twist, I liked that this play was a straight-up telling of Lear. The costumes were beautiful but typical of the period, and all the parts were cast as you’d imagine (one complaint is that every time I’ve seen this play, when the three daughters are introduced, I can always immediately spot the good daughter. Why is that? Why is the pure-of-heart daughter always the cutest one? Come on, surprise me once in a while.)

The performance itself was driven by some great actors. Stage veteran Peter Higginson was the perfect Lear.  His descent into madness was definitely the most genuine part of the play, I loved the way he delivered the lines that cut through the madness, when he has brief moments of clarity (“that way madness lies.”)  My friend and I agreed that the shrill voice of the oldest daughter (played by Lada Darewych) made the character unbearable–but I think that was the point.  Benjamin Blais, the actor playing the conniving son Edmund, was charmingly evil, delivering the best deranged cackle I’ve ever heard. I found myself hoping that this time, he wouldn’t be slain (spoiler: In the end, a lot of people die.)


-King Lear is playing at Hart House Theatre (University of Toronto, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto.)
-The show runs until Saturday, Oct 18th.  8 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., as well as Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in week three.
-Tickets are $20, $12 for students and seniors.
– Tickets are available at the UofTix box office, (416) 978-8849 or

Photo of Benjamin Blais and Thomas Gough by Daniel DiMarco