Review: Strong ‘Lear’ in Toronto’s High Park brings women to forefront Special

Posted Jul 15, 2017 by Jeff Cottrill
It’s 2017, and it’s beyond time that the women of the acting world got to walk in the footsteps of William Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes. Canadian Stage’s new “King Lear”, with Diane D’Aquila in the lead, makes a strong case.
Lear (Diane D Aquila) reunites with Cordelia (Amelia Sargisson) in  King Lear  at Shakespeare in Hig...
Lear (Diane D'Aquila) reunites with Cordelia (Amelia Sargisson) in "King Lear" at Shakespeare in High Park.
Cylla von Tiedemann
As directed by Alistair Newton, this Lear works well enough that you’ll lament that this type of gender-swapping hasn’t always been done in Shakespeare productions. Who knows what great performances we may have missed; imagine Kate Hepburn or Helen Mirren as Lear, perhaps, or Vivien Leigh as Macbeth? D’Aquila – a stage veteran who starred in the inaugural Shakespeare in High Park production back in 1983, as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – gives us an aging queen who’s as strong, passionate, proud and foolish as any male Lear could be.
Also owning her scenes in a traditionally male role is Jenni Burke as the Countess of Kent: Burke’s portrayal of the banished yet stubbornly loyal Kent abounds with compassion, but still has room for some fun “nasty woman” business, in the scene in which she verbally assaults hapless servant Oswald (Peter Fernandes).
This year marks the thirty-fifth season for Toronto’s Shakespeare in High Park, with Lear (which opened on Thursday) alternating evenings with Twelfth Night. And despite considerable cuts and changes to the text and some scattered imperfections, CanStage’s Lear is worthy of the anniversary milestone – a solid, straightforward staging with a few surprises here and there.
For the few who might need a quick refresher, it’s the tragedy of an aging queen who attempts to divide her kingdom among her three daughters – the hypocritical Goneril (Naomi Wright) and Regan (Hannah Wayne Philips), and the honest Cordelia (Amelia Sargisson) – and banishes Cordelia when she refuses to compete with her sisters’ false flattery. When Lear discovers that ceding her power means abandoning her queenly privileges too, she goes insane and wanders the stormy countryside. Meanwhile, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund (Brett Dahl), makes more trouble by setting up his brother Edgar (Michael Man) and father (Jason Cadieux) as traitors, with everything leading to war, adultery and eye-gouging.
Newton presents Lear on a minimalist stage with a few mechanical tricks from set designer Claire Hill: two centre doors open and shut automatically to allow in sliding thrones, beds and other pieces when required. Although some past High Park productions have made ample use of the audience area, Newton keeps the action mostly confined to the thrust stage; the one major exception is D’Aquila’s explosive rendition of the “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech, which is delivered at the top of the audience hill, like an angry, crazy rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s definitely a highlight of the show, although you may wonder afterwards if the extreme emphasis was necessary.
Another unexpected high point is Cordelia’s return from banishment with the French army: with mist rising on the stage’s balcony and the sound of war drums, Sargisson appears on the balcony in armour, holding a sword heroically, delivering her monologue as a call to arms. You may not even recognize her at first; she leaves the first scene as a humiliated, banished princess and comes back as Braveheart. It’s another example of Newton’s vision of strong women leading the way in this drama. (That may also be why – spoiler alert – he has Regan deliver the final death blow to a character usually killed by a man, although that moment seems more contrived.)
While the production pares Lear down to a ninety-minute, one-act running time out of necessity, you may question some of Newton’s cuts and changes. Absent are the interactions between the mad Lear and the disguised, runaway Edgar, and you might miss Lear’s observations about “unaccommodated man... [as] such a poor, bare forked animal as thou art.” These scenes may not be essential to the plot, but they’re thematically important – they mark Lear’s realization that without her royal trappings, she’s nothing more than a common human being after all.
More baffling, though, is when Newton makes specific changes to Shakespeare’s text for no apparent reason. “I love your majesty / According to my blood,” says Cordelia in the first scene, instead of “according to my bond”. Later, the blinded Gloucester laments, “As flies to wanton boys are we to our god; he kills us for his sport.” Not that I’m a fanatical Shakespeare purist or anything, but I don’t see why such a famous line needed to be changed, so conspicuously. (The blinding scene, by the way, uses a gruesome gouging sound effect that actually made a few audience members gasp on opening night.)
Regardless of nitpicking on changes, it’s D’Aquila’s performance that runs things here. Her Lear doesn’t quite have the clueless senility of David Fox’s unique interpretation in 2015, but she brings out some colourful sides of the old queen. Right from the start, you don’t want to get on this lady’s bad side – witness her threatening delivery of “The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft” to Kent, or how her brutal, violent rebuke of Goneril reduces the latter to tears. But another scene, in which she first meets the disguised Kent while tipsy with wine from an offstage party, suggests she knows how to have a good time too (albeit with a strong undercurrent of privilege), while her later madness bring out Lear’s playful, childlike quality – and her anguished, grief-stricken howls in her last scene are heartbreaking.
Dahl offers a decidedly original take on Edmund, playing the Bard’s bastard as a flamboyant, effeminate young man whose catty line delivery often has a flirtatious undertone, and costume designer Carolyn M. Smith beefs up his rebellious quality with a bare-chested look early on and a leather jacket later. (He sounds almost as if he wants to take the gods home with him when he says, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”) Otherwise, Wright makes a strong, confident Goneril, and Cadieux and Man are fine as Gloucester and Edgar respectively. As Regan, Philips often comes off more as a saucy teenager than as the privileged daughter of a queen; a recent York University theatre grad, Philips is making her Canadian Stage debut this year, so I suppose we could chalk it up to inexperience. Sadly, CanStage staple Robert Persichini is missing the opening week due to health issues, so Newton has stepped in his place temporarily (on book) as Lear’s Fool.
As far as a condensed Lear goes, this is a good night of outdoor theatre. It’s also a sign of the times: as women continue to struggle for equality – in life and in the arts – this production demonstrates that female portrayals of some of the greatest stage roles of all time are long overdue.
King Lear runs at Toronto’s High Park Amphitheatre until September 2.