King Lear – Driftwood Theatre

by Lucy Allen

Christopher Kelk as King Lear and Shannon Currie as The Fool in Driftwood's King Lear


Despite the threat of rain, leashless dogs running wild and the ever-present complications of a city strike, Driftwood Theatre persevered.  They have pushed through all of these obstacles to perform a production of King Lear, currently playing in Trinity Bellwoods Park.

I must admit, I’m a bit of a King Lear connoisseur.  It remains one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.  Not only did I have to study it three times in high school, I’ve now seen four productions of it.  Needless to say, I sat down that night in the open air-venue thinking that I knew what to expect.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Edmund, played by Peter Nicol, walked out on stage to deliver a monologue that in fact belonged to the second scene.  This was just one of the many surprises presented in Driftwood’s production, and provided a refreshing look at the age-old text.

Most people who know Shakespeare know King Lear.  It’s the story of a king who gives up his kingdom to his two power hungry daughters while disowning his third loving daughter, only to go mad from the weight of his mistakes.

For those who aren’t familiar with the play, a synopsis is provided in the program.  My show partner, Dan, found it extremely helpful, since he hadn’t touched the play since our high school days.  He said with it, he was able to keep up with the show.

The show is set at the turn of the 20th century, another surprise for me, as King Lear is known to be a fairly specifically dated show, and difficult to set during other historical periods.  Costumes reflect both period and character appropriately.

The show is also staged “in-the-round”, another difficult task to pull off and one which was done quite effectively.  There was never a point in the show where I couldn’t see anything and if one actor was blocked from view there was always another to watch.  The staging combined with a minimal set also provided a more intimate and focused atmosphere, something not normally associated with the epic feel of King Lear.

Outdoor venues always prove to be a hell in terms of sound, and I was extremely relieved to see that Driftwood used microphones with their actors.  There were a few very minor feedback issues at a couple of points, but I was just glad not to have to strain my ears as the actors’ voices were carried off with the wind.

The only other sound used in the show was a series of acapella songs used to indicate a scene change or the storm that eventually develops.  These were consistent and provided the dark tone needed.  They mostly made up for the lack of thunder-claps, though Dan felt that he would have preferred a more ferocious storm.

To me, though, what makes this show are the performances.  Christopher Kelk gives an intense and moving performance as the title character, shifting easily from a powerful authority figure to a pitiful shell of a man at the end.  Throughout most of his performance my eyes were glued firmly to the stage.

A strong ensemble cast, whose constant focus and energy added much to the show, rounds out the piece. At first I had been worried that Dan, a rookie of Shakespeare, might get lost.  He later told me though that he was impressed with how well the actors were able to convey what was going on just with their inflection and physicality.

The stand-out performance for both of us was Peter Van Gestal as the loyal Kent, who stole many of the scenes he was in with impeccable comedic timing and energetic stage presence.

Other notable performances included Steven Burley as the wronged brother Edgar, whose portrayal of Poor Tom is one of the most unique and realistic I’ve seen.  Steven Gallagher also provided an incredibly chilling Cornwall, a minor role but one that stuck in my mind.

The most interesting casting choice was using Shannon Currie as both Cordelia and the Fool.  Dan enjoyed her brittle and haunting performance as the Fool.  For myself, it was refreshing to finally see a female playing the role and interesting to reconsider Lear’s relationship to each character.

Lear fans used to a vast and epic show will be in for a surprise as this is a much more intimate treatment of the play (at least compared to other productions I’ve seen).  In part, it is due to the smaller cast, a necessary size for a touring show.

For the most part, the director and cast did a fine job of conveying the battles that occur in the play.  At first, I thought that I would miss the several sword fights that occur, since the period chosen doesn’t really lend itself to carrying swords around.  The hand to hand combat used instead however was just as intense and breathtaking to watch, perhaps even more so.  The only jarring thing for me was a stylized battle dance, but again, for the size of the cast it was a good choice and got the point across effectively.

Overall, this was a solid and refreshing production of King Lear.  Driftwood continues to uphold its tradition of providing our city with professional outdoor Shakespeare, and whether you’re a lover of Shakespeare or a rookie, there is no doubt this show is for you.


King Lear is playing in Trinity Bellwoods Park until July 30, 2009, and will then tour in Peterborough, Belleville, Kingston, Trenton, Cobourg, Oshawa, Greenwood, Bowmanville, Mississauga, Whitby, Lowville and will finish in Toronto.

-All performances begin at 7:30pm

-Tickets are PWYC, with a suggested contribution of $15.  See the Driftwood website for special promotions and advance ticket sales.

-For more details on other venues and showtimes, visit the Driftwood website or call the hotline at 905-576-2396.

Photo of Christopher Kelk (King Lear) and Shannon Currie (Fool), provided by Driftwood Theatre