The Tragedie of Lear presents a contemporary imagining of Shakespeare’s play in Toronto
The Tragedie of Lear, presented by the eponymous company at the Palmerston Library Theatre, seeks to help audiences connect to the supposedly “modern problem” of how adult children care for their parents, particularly those with mental illness, through the lens of a venerable tragedy.
Because of the age of the actor playing Lear, Walter Borden, the play has an alternate in case of illness. This was the case the afternoon I saw the play. If nobody had told me, I would have assumed Christopher Kelk was the original Lear all along. Surrounded by cast members who seemed to tower over him, he showed a mercurial disposition conflicting with subtle physical degeneration (the production worked with a neurological consultant). Moments of respite remind us that decline is not necessarily predictable or linear. I wish I’d been able to see both Lears for the full experience, but as Lear himself proves to us, time waits for no man.
King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, is the tale of a ruler in precipitous mental and physical decline. Taking obsequious flattery over honesty, he disinherits his formerly-beloved Cordelia (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) and splits his kingdom between daughters Goneril (Deborah Drakeford) and Regan (Joella Crichton), who grow weary of his whims and proceed to throw him away like a piece of rotten fruit. Meanwhile, Gloucester’s (Jane Luk) bastard son Edmund (Eli Ham) attempts to frame and banish the rightful heir, Edgar (Byron Abalos).
Director Ash Knight has made a few changes, some which very much worked for me, and some which didn’t. Changing Gloucester to a woman was a fruitful alteration; not only was Jane Luk a powerhouse in the part, but the relationships between her and her sons took on a different quality. (After all, she birthed them, rather than just donating genetic material). Luk is delightfully mischievous and full of emotion, fire and dignity, and the relationship between Gloucester and Lear felt stronger than in most productions I’ve seen.
On the other hand, while intellectually I appreciated the text-supported concept that Edgar was a drug addict, the choice did nothing for me emotionally. It was even irritatingly distracting, as his only initial characteristic. It made Edmund, usually a right bastard, more sympathetic, but I was vastly more interested in the later Edgar who shed the affectation and genuinely connected with his mother.
The play’s running time is two hours without intermission. The streamlined text means that the action never lets up, but it can also be a lot to take in, particularly for the small child who was in the audience.
Luckily for that child, this is not a bloody or particularly violent Lear, with the gory bits primarily hidden. There’s some fun fight scene choreography with slow motion interludes, changing the climactic battle into more of a barroom brawl. Nastiness is wrapped up in the concept that most characters reason that they are the heroes in their own stories, so there’s not much mustache-twirling. There’s also humour, oddly but appealingly wrought from tragedy, and the thunderous rumbles from the subway next door add atmosphere.
Disguises and doubling abound, though the production uses the barest suggestion of disguise (such as white powder on a beard) as a conceit. Cordelia, doubling as the critical Fool, wears a shawl printed with an appropriately symbolic abstract death’s head mask. The disguised characters have some of the strongest performances, with Marc Bondy as Kent and Cordelia’s Lancaster in particular twinning a sympathetic countenance with a readiness to attack.
This production is Lear done cleanly and done well, and you can’t ask much more. However, I’m skeptical that it makes the connection to modern-day eldercare more than any Lear naturally does, and I don’t know if it’s going to excite newcomers to the play. I might be wrong, though; judging by the volume of questions the child in the audience charmingly asked about what was going on, we may have a budding Shakespeare fan on our hands.
- Tragedie of Lear plays until October 22, 2017 at the Palmerston Library Theatre (560 Palmerston Avenue)
- Shows run Friday-Saturday at 7:30PM, and Saturday-Sunday at 1:30PM, with an 11AM student matinee on October 20th.
- Tickets are $20-28 and can be purchased online.
Photo of Joella Crichton, Deborah Drakeford, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, and (Background) Walter Borden by Jon de Leon