The Toronto Theatre Review: Soulpepper’s King Lear/Queen Goneril
It’s a big undertaking, these two slices of golden royalty. One from the past; old and well formulated. The other from the present; young and ambitious. Makes sense, as in a way, this is what it is all about. But it is in the coupling where this unraveling works best, and placed together, one after the other like I did last Saturday, Soulpepper Theatre and their lined-up productions of King Lear, a classic by Shakespeare, and Queen Goneril, a new play by Erin Shields (If We Were Birds), unearths all the magic required to turn this on its head and expand our understanding. On their own? I’m not so sure. The King will forever stand the test of time, but I’m not quite sure the same could be said of the Queen.
First off, for our Saturday Soulpepper undertaking, is the Bard classic, King Lear, a study in blind love, infantile arrogance, fairytale narcissism, and the resulting madness that sends him railing against a storm that he has brought upon himself. With big stone columned archways flanking the throne, the solid red lines of passion, power, and blood line the floor and the wall behind, all courtesy of the majestic work by set designer Ken MacKenzie (Soulpepper’s Where The Blood Mixes) and lighting designer Kimberly Purtell (Soulpepper’s Mother’s Daughter). The moveable edges and intensity envelop us, as the sound of fury, thanks to composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne (Soulpepper’s Kim’s Convenience), leads us towards the seated King in a strong pool of intense light. All is not ok in this realm. The imagery and the artistry shine profound as directed with stealth by Kim Collier (Electric Company’s Magic Hour), with hints of modern gadgetry and dress teasing us with what is about to come. The faulty King stalks forth with vigor, marking up the map that is his ultimate destiny, as a flurry of movement begins, masking the fragility and making the intent strong and willful, all before the first words of text are even spoken.
Embodied most powerfully and magnificently by the intensely talented Tom McCamus (Stratford’s Coriolanus; “Sweet Hereafter“), this aging King missteps logic, and falls victim to his own fairytale narcissism and his childlike need for overt flattery and adoration. His two older daughters, Goneril, played intensely by Virgilia Griffith (Stratford’s Serving Elizabeth) and Regan, strongly portrayed by Vanessa Sears (Obsidian/Canadian Stage/Necessary Angel’s Is God Is), see clear in his need and intention. They profess their love for him most extravagantly, giving him exactly what they believe is his need. Their two faces tell tales we have yet to unearth, but the shock is groundbreaking and shape-shifting (Shields will have more to say about this later).
His youngest daughter, Cordelia, starting out strong by Helen Belay (Citadel’s Heaven), stands more firmly in the real authentic world, and forgoes adoration, much to her demise. “Nothing will come of nothing,” he says, “speak again.” He says it playfully at first, as the two sisters look on in amazement, baffled by what is transpiring. But this isn’t jovial play, yet Cordelia continues to answer honestly, that she only loves her father as much as any daughter should. She doesn’t join in with the same transparent game as her sisters. But the logical clarity doesn’t get past Lear’s fragile infantile need. It pushes the needy arrogant King into a rage, disowning his one truly honest daughter, and dividing his kingdom in half, for the two who flatter. This blind outrage, fought hard against by the strong but tactless Kent, portrayed wisely by Sheldon Elter (Soulpepper’s Where The Blood Mixes), blunt in his advising of Lear, ultimately brings the King to his knees, destroying almost all of those around him.
McCamus delivers the sad and rageful truth within every action and word. He’s utterly bold and demented, deepening our empathetic understanding of his flaw as he descends into chaos and madness. It’s an astounding performance, that electrifies the stage. The women that surround him do their royal duty as well, giving us hints and sly nods to what might be in store later that evening in the new play, Queen Goneril. The compelling ideas fling themselves around in our heads as we watch for those clues, expanding our interest in Grittith and Sears as they unpack their Goneril and Regan portrayals with glee and assurance. Belay finds clarity in her innocence, but sadly loses her complexity and authenticity as the madness moves through the three acts. Yet, we watch their bonds shift strongly into rivalry and betrayal. The art is in the details with these two older siblings, so pay close attention and lean in strong. It truly is fascinatingly smart and wondrous watching them weave a web that we will only understand later, if we stay the course.
The smart flash-bulbed portrait of a family unitied is taken early on, before the declarations of love are displayed and unpacked. Yet, some of the jewels of thy father are flawed, but we haven’t discovered the ‘why’ quite yet. We must wait until later to glimpse what is under the robes. But it isn’t just in the ‘daughters at play’ here, as we know. Edmund, the illegitimate son of King Lear’s main trusted attendant, the seemingly honorable Gloucester, played solidly by the wonderful Oliver Dennis (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage; “Slings and Arrows“), is also playing a very different game than what is expected of him. There is another storm forecast in the horizon, quickly approaching, and ready to topple the legitimate if all goes according to plan. Jonathon Young (Coalmine’s Knives in Hens) dazzles as the devious Edmund. He is both villainous and sly to perfection, pulling us into his plot with delightful ease while ushering us forward against the foolish honesty of his brother, the legitimate Edgar, well played by Damien Atkins (Soulpepper’s Angels in America), but it is his illegitimate brother we can’t take our eyes off of, even with Atkins’s sublime descent into madness of poor Tom.
All involved deliver with abundance though, particularly McCamus, Dennis, and Young. We watch the storm swirl strongly around the arrogant fathers, blinded by their faults and their misguided faith, discarded and punished quite severely by their children out onto the unforgiving heath. What would Freud have to say about that? The Fool, somewhat too quietly portrayed by a held-back Nancy Palk (Soulpepper’s A Delicate Balance), is overshadowed by the raging King, not catching enough steam in the rain to find her footing. The mad lead the blind and the fool here, through the stormy villainy of flattering daughters and a scheming son.
The play somehow loses some of its urgency and drive with each subsequent Act in the three and half hour production. It never completely derails or loses our devotion, but the electricity does soften, even as the artistry remains remarkable and undeniable, both dynamic and detailed. And the tale rings true and profoundly sad, almost as clear as the beautiful formulation that is being presented on the Young Centre for the Performing Arts stage until October 1.
But the deep dive isn’t quite over and done with, even as the dead line the stage from all sides. Soulpepper has another hand to play here in their and our attempt to understand the faultlines of a mad aging King, his children, and his followers. Shields’ new play, Queen Goneril is waiting in the wings, just out of sight of King Lear, teasing us with a time jump, and the grab that we might learn a thing or two about those that have inflicted and received the pain of love and betrayal. The ideas swirl hard, as hard as that storm we just witnessed, and a dinner in the Distillery District can’t be ingested quick enough for my liking. But a few hours later, I was back, impatient and excited to unpack the unknown undercurrent that is living inside Queen Goneril.
The second play, the new, modern, and original one, deemed as the one that will explain the roots of all the traumatic response mechanisms that exist in the Shakespearian text, has a big responsibility in its making. And I will say, from the outset, that Queen Goneril succeeds admirably, although not entirely. My companion for the two plays was of a different opinion, suggesting as a title: “Shakespeare Lives, but Gonderil Dies in the Distillery.” But we are not on the same page in that summation. I understand and comprehend the complex disturbance at hand, but can’t get behind the overall complaint. There’s too much to take in and unpack for the play to be considered a failure, because, inside its complexities, there lies some nuggets of gold, much like what that Old Woman (Palk) conveys most beautifully as she rummages through a bucket looking for treasure.
It all begins with a filmed dialogue between the actors who are the leads of these two plays, Virgilia Griffith and Tom McCamus. They teasingly discuss their take on the two plays and their characters, while playing, most creatively, with our understanding of reality and scripted construct. It’s a fascinating abstractionism, listening to these two as they take on questions about internalized drive and construction. It forces us to witness the underlying frustrations of Goneril and the controlling aspects of a privileged King, all through the modern lens of privilege, oblivious interruptions, and condescending dismissal. The canopy of what lies ahead is dutifully laid down by Shields, man-spailing and spoken over with deliberate fearless determination. We are ready and prepared now for the peeling back of time, and to find at least some of the original roots of behavior that exist inside the secondary characters of King Lear. Without the historical underpinnings of the past mucking it all up in that bucket of shit.
Directed with determination and purpose by Weyni Mangesha (Soulpepper’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), Queen Goneril delivers the goods in basic abundance, almost too well. The play sets the clock back seven years in order to uncover the forms and feelings that brought forth the personages that manipulated Shakespeare’s Lear. It’s a bold and definitive recrafting by the playwright as she throws Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril, played once again by Griffith, forward into a storm of her own. It’s a dramatic undertaking, this dynamic investigation of a woman who believes, most honestly, that she is destined to be Queen. Rightfully so. Making me wonder what it is about the Shakespearian play, its history, and myself that never really saw this outright dismissal of Goneril before. Of course, she thought she would be crowned Queen. She is the eldest, and even in a time of male domination, that look on her face that we see in King Lear is completely reasonable and utterly honest. Why did I not ever recognize or comprehend that before?
Maybe its because we know Shakespeare’s play all too well, never questioning the motives or the actions, but dutifully accepting the insulting dismissal. This woman, and many who surround and have grown up with her, all of whom have been relegated to small supporting roles within Shakespeare’s royal tragedy, have finally been given the honor of understanding by Shields. We are treated to a different lens, to look at Goneril’s ambition and sense of duty, as well as her frustrations for not being seen as the rightful heir to the throne. Imagine King Charles’s face if he had to split his intended kingdom with his other siblings. The outrage would be deafening. Inside and outside of the man. Why would it, or should it, be any different for this woman?
Shields has done this Queen and Regan proud, giving them a whole new vantage point of understanding and contemplation, all with their own raging storm to withstand. Utilizing the same cast in pretty much the exact same roles, just seven years younger, on the same beautifully orchestrated set, the women find their way into the emotional back hallways of the palace, shifting our view of them with each insult and assault. Spoken in plain English, without any of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, the sisters take center stage with a vengeance after being ignored and unheard from for centuries. Griffith’s Goneril is unsurprisingly ambitious and determined, while guarding secrets that explain her unspoken, somewhat broken heart well, specifically, and most dynamically around the impeccable origin story of loyal Oswald/Olena, finely crafted by a strong Breton Lalama (Neptune’s Rocky Horror).
The middle daughter, Sears’ Regan, gets her own backstory, one where she feels forever trapped in the in-between; playing the clown and forever desperate for love and to be seen as more, specifically in the arms of the surprisingly caring Edmund. Yes, you heard that right. He is her dutiful and loyal admirer, and it is her story that upends the Gloucester house with a vengeance, thrusting forth a compelling idea around the disturbing complexities of what honorable means in its totality. Gloucester’s dishonor is known only within, and more interestingly, his persona is only perceived as honorable in the eyes of other men who sit in the position of privileged power, not to those who don’t. A very clear and clever connection to our time and the #MeToo space. But what lies underneath the man’s honor is something quite different, thanks to the fine work of Dennis and his Gloucester. Atkins’ Edgar, by the way, is wasted here; an afterthought that fails to rise to any importance. More importantly within the constructs of this play is the question that swirls around as we watch this restructuring: Does the Gloucester house reversal of character work? I’m not quite sure, as the reality of character change does seem to be a bit too large of an undertaking, even for this fine talented actor, but the ideas around what could possibly shift loyalties stays and remains intoxicatingly compelling, even if just on the level of a psychodynamic intellectualization.
The youngest daughter, Belay’s Cordelia, isn’t given the same restructuring and focus as Shields gives her elderly sisters. She has been relegated to play much younger, in a puffy young girl’s white dress, courtesy of costume designer Judith Bowden (Shaw’s Gaslight), and given the task of growing up quick before our eyes, trying hard to develop an understanding of the world around her so that we may understand her a bit more. The ploy explains some of the later states of being, but as played by Belay, never becomes all that compelling. Palk, on the other hand, is finally given the breath and the space to be the Fool, but oddly, it is in the role of the Old Woman. In that position, she grabs hold of the stage and air around her, and takes charge, regardless of who is standing beside her.
This play is all about causation and struggle, but more importantly, the young women that line the backstory of King Lear. And it is in their fine sibling chemistry that Queen Goneril is brought to life. It is captivating and intense, yet never fully flies forward completely. The heartfelt dynamics remain overt and self-consciously constructed, sometimes feeling like the main order at play is to check a number of modern analytical boxes and required sentiments. The realm is filled with trauma and psychoanalytical responses, many well-formed but others that don’t always deliver authentically beyond the simplistic, obvious, and sometimes opaque. When it feels true, as it does with Regan and more importantly, with Goneril, the ideas spark enlightenment, empathetic concern, and a realignment in the way the two are perceived, but with Edmund and his father, the play stumbles with a reactionary framework that feels less powerful. Edmund’s shift in honorable in a way that unearths his parentage, but does it explain his ruthless King Lear persona strongly enough? I’m not quite sure I can board that big-leap causation bus completely there. Yet, even when the overall conceptualization remains foggy and overly simplistic, the women’s fine rage against a different kind of storm tracks ideologically, explaining subsequent heartlessness in a more complex way than what Shakespeare might have intended; an emotional guarding of self that is generally fascinating and intellectually engaging.
Seen together, with only a few hours for contemplation in-between, the result is emotionally awe-inspiring, giving empathetic understanding to some that have always been seen as villainous. It unpacks layers of love and loyalty that we didn’t know existed, particularly and surprisingly around Lalama’s Olena, Goneril’s maid and lover, and Olena’s transition to becoming Oswald. That, and the play itself are both mesmerizing and compelling, easily worth the time that one needs to devote to this undertaking and examination. Seen together, with King Lear first, followed by the time-jump back to Queen Goneril, the reformation is detailed and dynamic, a must-see for anyone compelled to dig deep, deeper than we ever even thought about when it comes to those secondary characters, especially those sisters. This says a lot about how the world likes to and has always taken in privilege, honor, and betrayal. Now keep digging around in that bucket, ’cause I know you’re going to find some treasure if you look hard enough.