Review: LEAR

by Lynn on January 18, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

Seana McKenna
Photo: Michael Cooper


At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto. Ont.


Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Graham Abbey

Set and costumes by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Composer George Meanwell

Cast: Karl Ang

Diana Donnelly

Kevin Hanchard

Deborah Hay

Alex McCooeye

Seana McKenna

Jim Mezon

Colin Mochrie

Mercedes Morris

Alex Poch-Goldin

Antoine Yared

A beautifully acted, thoughtfully directed clear rendering of this complex play about an imperious queen-parent who divides her land amongst her daughters with terrible results.

 The Story. For the purposes of this production Lear is a woman, played as a queen by Seana McKenna. Lear decides to step back from ruling and divides her kingdom between her three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. But before they get their parcel of land they have to tell her how much they love her. Goneril and Regan knock themselves out with hyperbole. Cordelia tells her she loves her as a daughter should, no more or less. This enrages Lear and she banishes Cordelia. This sets in motion and whole lot of nastiness for a whole lot of people, not the least of whom is Lear.

 The Production. Peter Hartwell’s spare, light wood set suggests elegance and a rustic nature all at once. There are platforms, which when moved, represent different locations. The costumes are mainly black tops and skinny jean-pants. A cream coloured frock might make an appearance, but the clothes are mostly black.

Seana McKenna as Lear, is regal, imperious and utterly commanding. She snaps her fingers for a courtier to do her bidding and gets results of course. She lays out three black leather binders on a table, each binder with a portion of her land for each of her daughters. But first she asks each daughter tell her how much she lovers her to score a portion better than her sister. She smiles when she asks this. It’s a mean trick and I usually get the sense it’s not the first time she’s played this game.  We know Lear has already divided up the land evenly.

But when Lear is crossed, as she is when Cordelia doesn’t play the game, McKenna let’s loose—rage, fury, irrational and quick decisions follow. Slowly Lear loses her grip, her position and almost her mind, until enlightenment results. McKenna’s rendering of “Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl” will slash your heart. Hearing that first elongated, gut twisting, “Howl”, is the anguish of a mother who has lost her world. Devastating.

Deborah Hay as Goneril is the most emotionally damaged Goneril I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. In that first scene in the court she quivers with fear that she won’t be able to gush enough for her prickly mother’s pleasure. Hay’s voice trembles and is hesitant. She finds the pluck to give her a good answer.

Later, when Goneril is at home and her mother is there for a regular visit, Goneril is still unsettled but is also growing in confidence and even anger to fight back, and fight back she does. It’s a masterful performance full of such thoughtful detail it makes me consider that perhaps this is the first time Lear is playing this “Tell-me-how-much-you-love-me-and-I’ll-give-you-a-present-better-than-your-sister” game.

Diana Donnelly as Regan on the other hand, is cold steely resolve. This Regan is  calculating and won’t let Lear brow-beat her as she brow-beat Goneril. Donnelly gives a gripping performance of a woman who would marry a mean bully like Cornwall who would gouge out the eyes of the defenceless Gloucester. And Regan enjoyed the blood. It’s interesting to see how this Regan gets bolder and bolder in her conniving and more ruthless.

The naïve Cordelia, as played by Mercedes Morris, does not play the flattery game as her sisters do and she endures her mother’s wrath because of it. This is a more subdued performance from Morris. This is a Cordelia full of compassion.

This is a splendid cast of actors who have a gift for Shakespeare, how to speak his words with depth and sensitivity to his poetry. In director Graham Abbey you have a man who is only interested in the text and how to tell the story as clearly as possible. His pared down productions, so beautifully rendered, are the result.

Comment.  Once again, Graham Abbey has assembled a group of actors and designers who grapple with Shakespeare’s complex plays, examine, parse, dig deep, ponder, evaluate and present a production that is clear in its intent, gripping in emotion, and illuminate the human condition. Wonderful work.

Grounding Theatre Company presents:

 Opened: Jan. 12, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 28, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.

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