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Stratford star Colm Feore says King Lear is hardest theatre role he's done

Colm Feore in an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Friday, May 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Colm Feore in an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Friday, May 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - Esteemed Canadian actor Colm Feore has chewed through some of the meatiest roles in classical theatre, from Hamlet to Macbeth and Richard III.

But it's his latest — Shakespeare's mad monarch King Lear at the Stratford Festival — that's been the hardest he's ever done, the stage and screen star admits as he makes his much-anticipated return to the repertory theatre in southwestern Ontario.

"It's an enormous challenge, it's really hard, but it's the kind of hard that makes you think: 'Wow, this is why you do this,'" Feore said in an interview ahead of Monday's opening of "King Lear," helmed by festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

"Every time I do 'King Lear' I think, 'It's impossible to do, I should never have said yes to this.' Antoni is a nice guy and I really want to please him, 'But no, please don't make us do that.' And yet the moment we get through the first scene I think, 'We're committed, we have to do this now. Wow, this is cool. The second scene is even better — let's go!'"

The Officer of the Order of Canada, who's won SAG and Gemini Awards and plays Donald Menken in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," surmised King Lear is a difficult part because it's more visceral and has to be personal to the actor.

For him, that means tapping into what he called "the maddening delight" of being a parent — "the ebb and flow of these various feelings both of great affection and great annoyance" — in order to portray an aging king who decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters. As he puts his children through a test of their love to determine their share, his mental state crumbles.

"If you don't connect to it personally and use yourself, you will suck," said Feore, who also has three children. "There's just no way around it. You'll just be terrible. You may get a pretty good idea from a reading of it, but you won't be any good and you won't be watchable.

"In order to do this properly, you've got to invest everything you've got, everything you've known, everything you know at that minute for this play. It just has to be what my wife calls 'honest,' and by that she means that you're there, really there, telling the truth about Shakespeare and Lear but also about yourself every moment."

The 55-year-old was referring to Donna Feore, who is helming and choreographing of a production of "Crazy for You" at this year's festival.

The two live in Stratford, where he was last onstage at the 2009 festival, playing Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac. During his absence, the American-born star who grew up in Windsor, Ont., took on TV series including "The Borgias," "Revolution" and "The Good Wife," as well as various films.

Feore said he feels he's the right age to portray Lear, noting it's an intense part that "has to be played young, because you don't have the strength to do it."

"It's too hard, because Shakespeare requires you do go through so much, and the worst of it is at the end. You think most plays you start out hard and you glide. That's not what happens in this. It actually gets harder and harder and harder."

This year Feore is also starring as Archer in the festival production of "The Beaux' Stratagem." In "King Lear," his co-stars include Stratford veterans Stephen Ouimette as the Fool and Scott Wentworth as Gloucester.

The production is simple and straightforward, said Feore, noting Lear is fragile and well aware he's aging at the beginning but wants to make a lasting legacy before retiring.

"It's terrifically domestic. It's a very simple, personal family story. We often think, '"King Lear," oh it's big, it's tragedy.' No, it's the simplest play he wrote. It hasn't got a lot of poetry in it, it's not full of high, philosophical, intellectual reasoning like 'Hamlet.'

"It's just, 'What the hell is happening here? Why don't you love me? Why are you throwing me out?'"

This season, Feore has reached a milestone at the festival: Playing as many title roles there as Oscar winner Christopher Plummer.

Feore said he takes a cue from what Plummer has done with his career, which is tackling various mediums as well as the stage.

"I would say that Lear is the sum total of everything I've learned. It's where I am now with what I know now," said Feore, "and if it's not the best I've been, then I've massively screwed this up."

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