Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts where he is also a critic and contributor.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’ve never seen King Lear performed live. I studied the play in high school, then again during both undergraduate and graduate English studies. I even recall writing an essay on the Edmund problem: his perplexing and unconvincing last-minute repentance, which comes too late to save Cordelia. But for all that, I’ve never seen King Lear live. So – with some unexpected free time, I was excited to head to the premiere night of Canadian Stage‘s Shakepeare in High Park. Time to knock Live Lear off my bucket list!
I was also intrigued by the gender shift underpinning Director Alistair Newton‘s vision. Lear is played by veteran actor Diane D’Aquila (who trod the boards 35 years ago as Titania in the first season of Shakespeare in High Park). Her Lear is emphatically a queen and a mother, not just a male king played by a female actor. Teasing alternate narratives and new insights from works like King Lear is an idea that speaks to me. I take issue with the books my teenagers are made to study in their high school English classes because they are too often the same ones that I was made to study decades ago . . . usually unaccompanied by new commentary or insight. So I relished the July 13 premiere as an opportunity for the collision of the familiar and the unexpected in the great outdoors.
To cut to the chase, I enjoyed the play immensely. The gender switch works brilliantly. It creates a neater symmetry between the play’s 2 storylines, which are now cast along pure gender lines. The “A plot” is female: doddering mother Lear decides to cede her crown to her 3 daughters Goneril (Naomi Wright), Regan (Hannah Wayne-Phillips) and Cordelia (Amelia Sargisson). Her fiercely loyal servant Kent (Jenni Burke), also switched to female, becomes almost a 4th daughter. And Lear’s beloved male Fool (played by director Newton, standing in for the unavailable Robert Persichini) cross-dresses. The B plot remains all male: father Gloucester (Jason Cadieux) is manipulated by bastard son Edmund (played with androgynous verve by Brett Dahl) into disowning loyal son Edgar (Michael Man).
Along with the gender-specific storylines comes gender-based costuming, designed by Carolyn Smith. All characters wear black. Though men in this King Lear have less to do, and less impact on outcomes, their costumes are individual and variable, ranging from contemporary dress suits and period outdoors wear to the bare-chested, leather-clad attire of bad-boy Edmund. By contrast, the 5 female characters – including Lear, plus the Fool – share a near-identical wardrobe: black dresses with enormous hoops jutting out at 90 degrees from their waists, giving each the appearance of a local sphere of control moving with them as they glide about the stage.
With this configuration, the A plot is a story of women finding ways to exceed the shared hoops that constrain them. Daughters Regan and Goneril chafe at the men they are yoked to and defined by – until in a daring evolution of the play’s text, Wayne-Phillips’ Regan catapults from gliding manipulator to shockingly direct agent (though at play’s end, when the two sisters’ bodies find their way onto the stage, their individual identities are again subsumed by the still-standing hoops that envelope them). When Jenni Burke’s loyal Kent is banished by Lear in the opening scene, she slips these same hoops entirely. Assuming the male persona of Cassius, she becomes a super-charged one-woman wrecking crew. Kent’s excessive exuberance in disguise never quite made sense to me years ago. Here, it makes perfect sense.
Newton’s telescoping of Shakespeare’s narrative may serve Cordelia best of all. In the opening scene, she is alternately stiff, bewildered and reproachful in refusing to fawn over Lear to secure her third of the kingdom. Cordelia is an awkward daughter trying to discern the beloved mother beneath the queen. After the mercurial Lear strips her of her identities as princess and daughter, Sargisson’s Cordelia reinvents herself off-stage and returns — in another memorable moment sculpted through careful staging and selection of the play’s original text — as the sword-waving, full-throated leader of France’s army.
Nowhere is the battle with the hoops of constraint more evident than with Lear. As the play opens, D’Aquila’s Lear appears on her throne, which rolls forward from backstage. Eyes unfocused, doddering and muttering to herself, she is dressed only in a white shift. Atop this frail foundation, the Queen is constructed before our eyes. Other characters bring in the corset, the padded ‘bum roll’, the black gown and the white ruff. They dress her painstakingly: overlaying and then cinching up monarchy and patriarchy. The Fool stands beside her, holding a clockwork figure in a box. Emblematically, Lear is being ‘wound up’ to play her gender and class roles.
D’Aquila’s Queen Lear has, it almost seems, been driven mad by the constraints of these overlays. From the moment she rises, she fills the stage, moving like quicksilver from self-aggrandizing delusion to childlike incredulity . . . to explosive wrath. She petulantly deconstructs herself: loudly shedding the crown, the kingdom, and the one daughter who loves her. Later pushed to flee the two cruel daughters to whom she bequeaths her kingdom, she sheds the hoop-constrained royal dress, returning to the original white shift. In a gripping and wrenching performance, we watch a more complex and essential identity – as mother, as empathetic and powerful woman – struggle to assert itself. When it does, it is breathtaking in its effects: almost literally taking the sword out of the now-martial Cordelia’s hands, and then giving Lear the strength to avenge Cordelia and die with dignity. (And watch for the royal dress’ final appearance at play’s end as a symbol emphatically sundered from the now-dead woman in white.)
Further concentrating the production’s symbolic and thematic richness is the intense compression in the script. This Lear really flies! In particular, the secondary male narrative has been cut down to economical shape. (Don’t look for Mad Tom here – you won’t find him.) Overall, clever conflation and telescoping enhance the narrative symmetry, generate a number of alt-narratives – and, critically, make this thoroughly engrossing performance clock in around 1 hour 45 minutes.
I will admit there are other elements in the production that challenged me: for instance, a chess match feels jarring at a moment of rising emotional impact. And I’d like to re-watch the coda at end – I found it overlong and over-mysterious for my tastes. But these are minor quibbles – quibbles that a second viewing later in the summer may obviate. This King Lear is absorbing, kinetic and fast-paced. It is at once recognizable and surprising, filled with strong performances and rich commentary. Whether it’s your first time or your fifth time seeing King Lear performed live – and especially if you’ve never experienced the fun of outdoor evening theatre in Toronto – I encourage you to make the trip to High Park for Lear.
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What: King Lear by William Shakespeare; featuring Jenni Burke, Jason Cadieux, Brett Dahl, Diane D’Aquila, Peter Fernandes, Kristiaan Hansen, Richard Lee, Michael Man, Robert Persichini, Amelia Sargisson, Naomi Wright, Hannah Wayne-Phillips; directed by Alistair Newton
When: On stage until September 3, 2017, performed in repertory with Twelfth Night, directed by Tanja Jacobs
Where: High Park Amphitheatre, High Park, 1873 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: CanadianStage.com
© 2017 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya