*Read the KING LEAR review for contextual reference.
Queen Goneril is playwright Erin Shields‘ emotionally charged backstory to Shakespeare’s King Lear. Taking us back seven years before the events of that classic, she focuses our sympathies on Lear’s three daughters, drawing us into their fraught inner lives. Weyni Mengesha’s majestic, passionate production for Soulpepper is playing in repertory with King Lear.
Goneril (Virgilia Griffith) eagerly awaits her chance on the throne. Her father, King Lear (Tom McCamus), teases his intention to place her there. He may just be patronizing her though, and her sisters too—Regan (Vanessa Sears) and Cordelia (Helen Belay).
He infantilizes the trio, encourages them to act out their childhood dynamic, playing at royal court theatrics for his amusement. He’s a terrible father, squandering his daughters’ potential. His leadership sucks too; as ego and senility take their toll, trade agreements fall apart and the bodies of dead soldiers rot just outside the castle.
Shields’ inventive prequel gives us vivid and compelling characters. Though not in verse, the text feels both naturalistic and suitably poetic. There is only one passage of dialogue that I found particularly sloppy: a moment of communal support in which characters rattle off a series virtues that feels contrived and hokey.
The character Shields’ least expands upon is Lear. Shakespeare has already given him many words in his own play, though, so we know his deal. It’s his daughters who are finally given room to breath here. Instead of just two schemers conspiring both with and against each other, and a pure-of-heart martyr, we are shown women with more at stake than the trappings of power.
The sisters’ African heritage is a significant aspect of their story. Having died giving birth to the youngest of them, their mother’s legacy impacts their individual journeys.
Griffith is an imposing and impassioned Goneril. Her tactics range from subtle manipulation to outright confrontation, but her ambition is ultimately thwarted by an old boys’ club of noble custom. Sears gives us a brash Regan, glowing with carnal expectation, though her reckless momentum sends her careering into a sleazy world of entitled male exploitation. As Cordelia, that steadfast adoring daughter, Belay is a quietly thrilling presence. We see the anger and frustration behind her sustained, decorative smile.
McCamus offers a nuanced and compelling portrait of an arrogant fool who will eventually paint himself as the victim of unappreciative, malicious daughters. He’s iconic, of course, but this isn’t his story; we’ll talk more about him in reference to King Lear.
Of the solid supporting ensemble, I was particularly drawn to Breton Lalama as Goneril’s lady-in-waiting, Olena. They are lovers here, a point that is addressed quite early on, but it is the transformative aspect of Olena’s gender dynamic that’s a delightful surprise. It sets up such an exciting connection to Goneril’s later servant, Oswald. Sadly, like so much of this work, it doesn’t pay-off in King Lear.
The aesthetic of Mengesha’s production is fanciful—a richly textured, expressive world removed from any specific era. Judith Bowden’s costumes contribute to that distinctly theatrical mode—seeming to exist across time rather than in it.
The central element of Ken MacKenzie’s set is a pair massive stone archways that are shifted to establish different environments. Their intimidating height and sense of history loom over the characters—ancient, uncaring structures that have stood immutable as generations of nobility rose and fell.
Kimberly Purtell baths everything in textured light, creating a rich atmosphere. She punctuates key moments of intensity, searing them into our imaginations, with blinding flashes from an upstage bank of bulbs.
Overall, Queen Goneril is exhilarating. The experience of it could greatly colour the context in which you see King Lear. Each is effective independently, but as an expansive theatrical experience, I recommend seeing both. In my companion King Lear review, I will elaborate on why I think seeing that play first, despite the disjointed chronology, could be a more fully satisfying experience.