*Read the QUEEN GONERIL review for contextual reference.
Shakespeare’s King Lear blends family drama with political intrigue in the tale of an aging leader losing his grip on his sanity, his country and his daughters’ affection. As his reign comes to an end, he attempts to split the nation into three factions, giving each daughter a portion. When his ego-trip demand for their flattery backfires, he sets in motion a series of tragic circumstances.
There are many familiar Shakespearean tropes packed into this tale—wise fools, banished nobles in disguise, tragic madness both real and feigned, vengeful illegitimate children and plenty of poeticized violence and anguish. Some eyes get plucked out! It’s great stuff and this production brings it all about in grand style.
Kim Collier’s elegant production shares design elements with Weyni Mengesha’s Queen Goneril. That out-of-time aesthetic governs the set dressing and costumes. Cell phones, guns and electric light exist within the walls of this medieval castle. Those imposing archways tower over the action. The textural fabric that lines that back wall of Ken MacKenzie’s set is more prominent here, the bunched folds thrown into relief and lent an eerily organic aspect by Kimberly Purtell’s lush lighting.
Thomas Ryder Payne’s score for both productions is rousing and majestic. Infused with a hint of gothic melody, it propels us from one scene to the next with cinematic force.
King Lear also shares a cast with Queen Goneril and they, once again, electrify the air around them. Tom McCamus Lear is considerably more sympathetic here. He’s the same arrogant, spiteful jerk, but more of his vulnerability comes out. And, of course, there is Shakespeare’s verse, which just resonants humanity even through the most abject behaviour.
I found my attention often drawn towards Sheldon Elter’s Kent. During Lear’s wildly eccentric scenes half-naked in a raging storm, his distress at seeing his former friend in such a dire state is very compelling. Another surprising highlight is Damien Atkins’ vivid, grotesque and rather poignant turn as Edgar’s Tom o’ Bedlam persona.
The performances are rich and persuasive. I suspect, though, that Collier’s direction is meant to accommodate audiences who haven’t necessarily seen Queen Goneril; many of the intriguing emotional set-ups are abandoned here in favour of a more standard interpretation. Where is Cordelia’s anger? Where is the intimate tension between Goneril and Oswald? Where is the lingering, nuanced bond between the sisters?
There are also a couple of underwhelming or unintentionally goofy staging decisions. Ankle shackles are not as dramatically humiliating as “the stocks.” And a gun shot to the arm at point blank range is not a realistic strategy for inflicting a flesh wound.
I saw the two plays as a double bill. It was an intense, somewhat exhausting experience in the most satisfying way. I think, though, that I would have preferred to have seen King Lear before Queen Goneril, as the emotional specifics of the Shield’s play would seem more like intriguing speculation than an unfulfilled set-up.
Both productions stand on their own as exceptionally well-executed and exciting theatre.