Amelia Sargisson is helping “set Shakespeare free” in SiHP’s King Lear and Twelfth Night

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Amelia Sargisson (photo courtesy of Canadian Stage)

Amelia Sargisson is relishing a summer of contrasts. From Tuesday to Sunday each week, she alternates between portraying the stoically reticent Cordelia (King Lear) and the verbally deft Viola (Twelfth Night) in repertory in Canadian Stage’s 35th Shakespeare in High Park (SiHP). A pivotal decision by each of these characters sets her play’s respective plot in motion. In King Lear, Cordelia refuses to participate in Lear’s self-indulgent love contest, catalyzing the sequence of events that lead to Lear’s demise. In Twelfth Night, Viola impersonates a male (Cesario) and is enlisted as her new employer’s romantic intermediary, whereupon the object of his affection, Olivia, falls in love with her!

If this seems like a significant theatrical juggle…it is. And Sargisson is terrific in both roles. She interprets both characters as active, capable and decisive women – portrayals that should resonate with contemporary audiences.

King Lear, directed by Alastair Newton, is set in Elizabethan times, which aptly suits his gender-swapping interpretation. In it, Lear is portrayed by Diane D’Aquila who performs her as queen, not king, with her loyal servant Kent also played as a woman by Jenni Burke. Sargisson views Newton’s vision as particularly effective because it makes explicit the relinquishing and reclaiming of the female principle, or anima: “In transposing Lear to Elizabethan England and reimagining the fictive King as the historic Regina Gloriana who defined her era, Alistair in fact furthers the idea by suggesting that even a woman in power has to sublimate her female principle.” The Elizabethan Era was a man’s world in everything but name, notes Sargisson, who wonders “did the Queen govern as a woman, or did she ‘man up’ in order to hold down her job for as long as she did?”

When reading the play traditionally, it’s easy to interpret Cordelia as a paragon of female martyrdom and goodness, who catalyzes the play’s action through the noble refusal to indulge her father’s ego. In such a reading, she can seem stubborn and a bit stilted. Her wilful defiance prompts her banishment, until she later returns with the protection of her husband and his army. Sargisson’s Cordelia, by contrast, is a lion-heart. She is the archetypal strong, silent type, who loves so purely and deeply that she cannot translate her feelings into mere words. “She epitomizes the notion that actions speak louder than words and is incapable of that ‘glib and oily art to speak and purpose not’ what she says.”

Sargisson views Cordelia’s predicament as recognizable to a contemporary audience: “She’s a child who’s lost her parent to an all-consuming career. She’s idolized by her Mum, but how much time does she really get to spend with her? I think this is an all-too familiar family dynamic in our performance-driven, capitalist society.”

Amelia Sargisson (Cordelia) & Diane D’Aquila (Lear), King Lear; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

In this interpretation, Cordelia’s allegiance to Truth makes her more rebel than goody-two-shoes. When she returns from banishment, she is transformed into a “total boss – she returns home with an army in tow (!!!) to restore her Mother to power.” Newton gives Cordelia some text from Joan La Pucelle from Henry VI, I and stages a moment where an armored Cordelia (her husband France is nowhere in sight) rallies her troops, brandishing her broadsword.  Sargisson explains that her Cordelia is following in her Mother’s footsteps by turning herself into a man in order to take power. She cogently connects the plight of Lear’s sole female monarch and her daughter to Rebecca Solnit’s discussion of contemporary women in her “Occupied Territory” essay in July’s Harper’s Magazine. In this light, Cordelia’s reunion with the now-disoriented and demoralized Lear is especially poignant: “It comes as a total shock to [Cordelia] when her Mother doesn’t want to be restored to the throne, and, in that moment, Cordelia’s dream comes true – she finally gets a Mum instead of a Monarch.”

Sargisson’s tough yet tender steadfastness invites tears and cheers in equal measure. And if you return to High Park on the following night (as I did), you will find that she prompts tears of laughter in her lead role as the agile Viola, who literally tumbles onto the stage and sets the pace for the dizzying romp of Twelfth Night. In contrast to the black-and-white design of King Lear, Twelfth Night or What You Will, directed by Tanja Jacobs, is a multi-colour rollick set in a 1970s era hotel, complete with a catchy soundtrack of 70s hits, moments of direct audience interaction, rampant disco dancing and cannily-placed anachronisms. With a plot that hinges on Viola’s disguise as the male Cesario (and the extensive subterfuge, misunderstandings and mistaken identities that result) the Seventies era lends the play a free-wheeling, lighthearted innocence that is a potent counterpoint to the bleakness of Lear.

Sargisson describes Viola as able to make the best of any situation, no matter how dire.  Having washed up in a strange land, she elects to pass herself off as the male Cesario in order to gain employment. “Viola is a survivor,” Sargisson maintains, “of a violent shipwreck and of life’s seemingly endless sabotages. She’s a twin and totally bereft without her womb-&-soul-mate, Sebastian [played by Brett Dhal]. She was orphaned at 13 when her dad (also named Sebastian) died. She bears ‘a mind that envy [can] not but call fair’.” Though passing herself off as a man, ironically, “she hates lying,” and Sargisson’s depiction highlights Viola’s scrappy pluck tempered with a self-possession and optimism that she preserves even as others around her devolve into a chaos of confusion.

Naomi Wright (Olivia) & Amelia Sargisson (Viola-Cesario), Twelfth Night; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Resilient, resourceful and practical, Sargisson’s Viola is also  “…a lover of language, (I wager) a voracious reader, and (I suspect) an aspiring writer; she’s certainly very eloquent, and almost everyone who meets her comments on her way with words.” While Cordelia’s allegiance to Truth makes her almost stubbornly reticent, Viola always has words at the ready: “She’s a brilliant improviser…..” and, she smiles, “in this 70’s-era Twelfth Night, she’s also an ardent Joni Mitchell fan.”

Sargisson displays her comic timing and gift for physical comedy in scenes with the lovesick Duke Orsino, played with a swoony self-indulgence by Richard Lee, and the grieving recluse Olivia (Naomi Wright), whose encounter with Viola-Cesario returns her to the land of the living . . . with a lustful jolt. The standout scene for me is a “duel” that original goodtime-guy Sir Toby Belch (Jason Cadieux) contrives between Viola and the gullible yet delightful fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek (an especially funny Peter Fernandes, whose comedic flair and wardrobe of many colours have never been sharper). In addition to being hold-your-sides funny, the scene has resonant undertones about what constitutes “manliness” and social expectations and assumptions about gender.

Though this is Sargisson’s first appearance in the 35 years of Shakespeare in High Park, she is no stranger to performing Shakespeare outdoors. Having performed 5 seasons with Montreal’s Shakespeare in the Park, she agrees that Shakespeare is particularly well-suited to outdoor performance. It is a “perfect marriage: the impossible beauty of summer skies at dusk and then at twilight, rises to the occasion of the impossible beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. It’s magical when the elements we invoke as characters in the plays – the heavens, the stars, the moon, the winds, that ‘orbed continent, the fire, that severs day from night’ – are right there within our view and the audience’s.”

Richard Lee (Duke Orsino) & Amelia Sargisson (Viola-Cesario), Twelfth Night; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Given our ever-shortening attention spans and propensity for sound bites, is that poetic Elizabethan language of Shakespeare an impediment to understanding King Lear  and Twelfth Night? “Well, if we’re doing our jobs properly, the language shouldn’t be a barrier,” Sargisson insists. “It’s up to us to make it clear and intelligible to people hearing it for the first time and only once.” She smiles, “No pressure!!!” She continues, “I’ve already touched on how topical the themes in Lear are, and how Alistair’s interpretation highlights this, but, speaking generally, I believe the relevance and appeal of these stories are inherent in them.” Based on the diverse, all-ages audiences that I saw last weekend (particularly at Twelfth Night), Sargisson seems correct in her assertion that “there’s a reason we’re enduringly drawn to them.” And just in case, Tanja Jacobs’ Twelfth Night takes a few modern liberties with Shakespeare’s language, garnering appreciative laughter from the audience, and (along with the diverse casting of the company) underscoring the universality and timelessness of the play’s themes.

Ultimately, this approach to Shakespeare’s plays as vital, modern texts — combined with a pay-what-you-can admission — make Shakespeare in High Park truly barrier-free. “I really appreciate the hashtag being used these days by The Public Theatre,” Sargisson offers, “which, interestingly, is the prototype for our Shakespeare in High Park here in Toronto: #freeShakespeare. Works on so many levels, doesn’t it? What’s incredible about doing pay-what-you-can Shakespeare in a public space is that it dissolves any barriers to these magical worlds and really, well, sets Shakespeare free!”

Still, she is nagged by a quasi-apocalyptic worry . . . will climate change make outdoor theatre impossible…or obsolete? If you share that fear – or just want to while away two evenings enjoying a communal experience in the magical setting of High Park, she encourages you to “get out here and enjoy it (while you can)! I’m dazzled and transported every day by the work of my boundlessly talented and generous colleagues, and I’m really excited for ever-more people to see it!”

Jason Cadieux (Sir Toby), Jenni Burke (Feste), Peter Fernandes (Sir Andrew), Twelfth Night 2017; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use

What: King Lear and Twelfth Night by William Shakespearedirected by Alistair Newton and Tanja Jacobs; 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

When: On stage in repertory until September 3, 2017

Where: High Park Amphitheatre, High Park, 1873 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON

Explore and Learn: Scott Sneddon’s review of King Lear

Info and Tickets:

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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