Review: King Lear (Mortar & Pestle Productions)

Poster for King LearMortar and Pestle’s King Lear stays on script, but could be gutsier

Where, exactly, does a tragedy start? Is it the moment a story is conceived? Or is it the moments when everything can be easily undone by simple communication?

Mortar and Pestle Production’s King Lear playing at the Gerrard Arts Space is a show that presents the inevitable tragedy with characters who seem to expect the events.

When everyone feels ahead of the plot, however, the story becomes less a tragedy and more a question of purpose.

King Lear (Vince Carlin) demands his daughters tell him how much they love him before he divides up his kingdom as a reward. When his youngest—Cordelia (Madeleine Brown)—fails to embellish her affections, she’s disowned, opening the door for the family’s fall to ruin.

With wicked sisters, a scheming bastard, and more fools than a play actually needs, it’s hard to see where a show can go wrong by staying true to the text. And yet, the smallest choice to modernize the characters, and give the women a bit more heft in their respective roles—something I credit to director Melissa Beveridge and her actors—led to a rather interesting conundrum.

King Lear is only a tragedy in so far as Cordelia watches her sisters play politics with their father’s affections and doesn’t play the game herself. We all know if King Lear had only listened to reason none of this would have happened but part of the tragedy is that these characters don’t know that. They have limited information and that’s how everything spirals out of control.

It’s ambitious to tackle a play that relies so much on small decisions with big consequences. That said, just because we know where things go wrong doesn’t negate an audience’s need to feel it. I got the impression that Beveridge’s direction took a back seat to the words.

I’ll use Goneril (played by Riley Anne Nelson) as an example because she was the most successful and frustrating culmination of ideas. Nelson starts the show oozing villainy. I mean, you know she’s bad news, but in this case she starts out turned up to eleven.

So we start with a character already in the extreme with three hours of play left. Where do you go from there? Lear’s whole character is stubborn and unwilling to listen but you look at the people around him, half of whom are figuratively twirling their moustaches and I just felt like saying: Well, that’s it.

If the production went all out using those extremes, I’d be all for it. Instead that’s the only setting, no ups or downs, and for me that got super bland super fast.

But there is a vision that I think, while buried, could really shine if Beveridge trusted herself more than the play.

I appreciated that this particular vision of Lear focused a bit more on the relationship between the sisters. There is one scene, when Regan (Courtney Lander) and Goneril are gaslighting Lear with their husbands standing to the side and it’s just them holding hands against their father.

I understood them one hundred percent in that moment, empathized, even. There was a whole, horrible backstory: Something that happened when they were younger. And that second was a shoe-on-the-other-foot moment that suggested Lear’s trespasses against them went very, very deep.

At the end, too, Nelson reveals a touching depth to Goneril’s evil. She is legitimately broken up about how everything played out. These are humanizing moments that totally break the otherwise unassuming scenes. A little challenge to the expectation that everything was happening the way it had to made an impact that was sorely lacking through out.

Variance is key here. King Lear, as I saw it, relied on our understanding of the play—not the performance, nor the direction. The story unfolded and everything that needed to happen, did. That’s it and nothing more.


  • King Lear plays until October 29th at the Gerrard Art Gallery (1475 Gerrard Street East)
  • Show runs until Friday at 8pm and on Saturday at 5pm and 7:30pm
  • Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased at the door
  • Bathroom can only be accessed during intermission and not before

Photo courtesy Mortar and Pestle Productions