I’ll start by saying that LEAR was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I’ve had in months. Led by a cast of Shakespeare professionals with vast Stratford Festival experience, Groundling Theatre’s production is a polished, compelling piece of theatre. Dropping “King” from the title, LEAR explores the play with a female in power – entrapping us with the familiarity of a female monarch. Every aspect of Graham Abbey’s production, designed by Peter Hartwell, serves a contemporary emphasis, seducing a modern audience to deeply feel and deeply connect with the humanity at the core of the Shakespearean drama.
In LEAR, an aging monarch’s daughters conspire against her to steal her throne. A son, suffering from the despair of his illegitimacy, conspires against his brother and father. Wives stray from their loyal, caring husbands, and faithful daughters and sons grant forgiveness when it seems surely impossible.
I have to admit that I have not yet experienced a live production of Lear with the title role portrayed by a man. In both this production and this past summer’s Shakespeare in High Park production, my Lears have been played by women. Personally, I think swapping the genders has an enormously powerful effect on some of the scenes between Lear and (in this case) her daughters, especially in scenes like Lear’s vicious attack on Goneril in Act I, Scene IV, “If thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility!” Coming from the woman who conceived her, this attack on Goneril cuts much deeper in this stripped down, gender-swapped production.
I am a huge fan of minimalist productions. Some of the most beautiful designs I’ve seen have also been some of the most simple. Abbey and Hartwell’s less-is-better vision commands every aspect of what we see, with a clean, gorgeous set and delicious, sumptuous costumes. Taking place on a structure of moveable, soft gray blocks, the production’s aesthetic is timeless, modern elegance. The orderly nature of the design allows that same order to disintegrate as the drama unfolds. With Abbey at the helm, it all unfolds very naturally. Emotional outbursts never feel exaggerated – and Lear’s descent into madness – a collaboration between Abbey’s direction and Seana McKenna’s artistry – is masterfully presented.
In assessing Lear’s madness, I’m still unsure as to what was a greater indication of her madness – McKenna’s terrifying, sharp-tongued wit from her Lear in Act I, or the serene disposition of her Lear in Act IV. Reverse the two Lears, and the journey towards “madness” that takes place in between, makes sense in either direction – which is terrifically intriguing.
Sharing a space with the very present McKenna is sort of a profound experience. As Lear, her eyes either focus on a target, practically shooting daggers at their victim, or they shift around, eager for something to fixate on. Her emotions flip quickly, but you can practically feel the tension building in her corps before she explodes. Every movement, every emotion comes off as carefully planned, but effortlessly executed.
As Lear’s Fool, Colin Mochrie is ideally suited to the role. The Whose Line is it Anyway? actor is acclaimed for his comedic timing, so the riddles issued by the Fool throughout the piece definitely meet the mark. Possibly the ensemble member with the least amount of Shakespeare performing experience, Mochrie never appears under-qualified.
Alex McCooey delivers an exquisite, cunning interpretation as Edmund, especially in his Act I, Scene II soliloquy – McCooey had the audience eagerly following his every word. Goneril’s pre-kiss line, “Decline your head,” in Act IV, Scene 2 takes on a new hilarious connotation with McCooey towering over her at 6’9″.
As Lear’s wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan, Deborah Hay and Diana Donnelly play both sides of a villainous coin. Hay seems to try to avoid relishing in her wickedness, but Donnelly seems to absolutely love it. Mercedes Morris is captivating as Cordelia, Lear’s initially dismissed faithful daughter. Morris leans on pleading vocalisms to become a model of purity and goodness.
Antoine Yared is a true chameleon as Edgar. Shifting from poised royalty to outlawed madman, the colourful actor gives an impassioned performance. As his father, the Earl of Gloucester, Jim Mezon demands great sympathy as the manipulated father.
The tension in the second half of LEAR is underscored by a brilliant musician, Graham Hargrove. Using a variety of percussive instruments, Hargrove heightens the impact of the already atmospheric production. The storm in the second half comes to life, a combination of Hargrove’s pounding music, and strikes of lightning from Kimberley Purtell’s astounding lighting design.
I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that LEAR is wonderful. The production thrives as a harmonious collaboration of a team of creative artists who are all the experts of their craft. In LEAR, beautiful design meets tremendous acting, making it a show you will not want to miss.
LEAR is presented by Groundling Theatre and runs through January 28, 2018 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 235 Queens Quay W., Toronto, ON
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://groundlingtheatre.com/
(main photo credit: Colin Mochrie, Diana Donnelly and Seana McKenna, photo by Michael Cooper)