by Lynn on September 21, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Toronto, Ont. . King Lear playing in rep at Soulpepper until Oct. 1, and Queen Goneril playing until Oct. 2, 2022.

NOTE: Soulpepper Theatre is presenting King Lear by William Shakespeare and Queen Goneril by Erin Shields in repertory. Erin Shields wrote Queen Goneril as a feminist companion piece to King Lear. The casts are the same for both as are the creatives (except for the directors). 

We are told that each play stands on its own and you can see them in any order. But I think to put things in context it’s better to see King Learfirst to get the story and then to see Queen Gonerilto see how cleverly playwright Erin Shields references King Lear in her own play.

I will review each separately.

King Lear

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kim Collier

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Damien Atkins

Helen Belay

Oliver Dennis

Sheldon Elter

Virgilia Griffith

Varum Guru

Breton Lalama

Annie Luján

Tom McCamus

Nancy Palk

Jordan Pettle

Shaquille Pottinger

Philip Riccio

Vanessa Sears

Klana Woo

Jonathan Young

Director Kim Collier’s has created a bloated, self-indulgent production in which she seems to think the audience hasn’t read a book, has no imagination and is a stranger to nuance. Strong acting though.

The Story. King Lear by William Shakespeare, is about a king who divides his land among his three daughters and all hell breaks loose as a result. King Lear is getting on in years and he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril (the eldest), Regan the middle one and Cordelia, the youngest and his favourite. His plan is to visit each daughter for a month, taking with him 100 knights, and he will keep all the titles and rank of king. In other words, he’s making his kingdom smaller to rule and his daughters will take care of him each month but he still rules the land.

But first he plays a little game with them in public, in the court. He asks each daughter in turn how much she loves him and in exchange he will give each a prized parcel of the kingdom. In the case of Cordelia, whom he describes as “our joy” he asks her to express her love so she can get a parcel of land better than her sisters. This seems a cruel game to me since he’s already divided up the land evenly (we are told so in the first speech of the play).

But matters get messy. Cordelia won’t play the game. She says that she loves Lear as a daughter should. Lear wants to hear more from her and she won’t give it so he takes her parcel of land away and gives it to the two other sisters. Needless to say that King Lear is in a rage– Lear hates to be contradicted. A courtier, Kent, pleads the case of Cordelia and Lear banishes him.

Cordelia is being courted by two men, France and Burgundy, and Lear tells them that Cordelia gets no dowry and they must decide who will marry her. Burgundy refuses her. France accepts her on her own. The other two daughters balk when King Lear and his men visit and they are rowdy.

And it goes downhill from there. Lean almost goes mad before he learns the truth. There is another foolish father in Gloucester and his two sons: Edgar, his legitimate son and Edmund, his bastard, vengeful son.

The Production.  Let’s talk about the positive first—the acting is dandy. As King Lear, Tom McCamus plays him as a man’s man, who loves to be the center of attention. He lobs a joke for those in attendance. He plays games with his daughters to bolster his ego and to have them ‘dance’ to his bidding in exchange for a parcel of the kingdom. Tom McCamus also illuminates Lear’s irrational behaviour when he is crossed or challenged. His temper is explosive, his movements big and almost uncontrollable. Patience is not his strong point. Goneril and Regan feel that his old age might be the cause of this irrational behaviour.  Interestingly his courtiers are not just yes people so it’s interesting to see how others try and reason with him.

Virgilia Griffith as Goneril, Vanessa Sears as Regan and Helen Belay as Cordelia all reveal their character’s hidden emotions. Goneril and Regan know how to play the “Tell me how much you love me game.” They flatter, are coy, but eventually their true feelings are revealed. Lear shows little affection to Goneril so Virgilia Griffith reveals a hardened woman as a result. When Cornwall (Regan’s husband) wants to punish Gloucester, it’s Goneril who suggests that they pluck out his eyes. Regan wants to hang him. These are two damaged women. Helen Belay as Cordelia, is more controlled and even-tempered. She is not using the fact that Lear loves her the most, but she is confident in herself to deal with Lear as an adult.

Jonathan Young plays up Edmund’s anger that he is treated by Gloucester as the bastard son. Of course we only have Edmund’s word for that. Gloucester (Oliver Dennis) is another father who thinks nothing of teasing and joking about his son in public, especially that he’s a bastard and that there was good sport in his conception. Jonathan Young hides his vindictiveness behind a smooth veneer of confidence and poise. Oliver Dennis as Gloucester is both a courtly man and one who is a bit silly with his vulgar jokes. But he is truly moving as Gloucester when he is blinded by Cornwall (Philip Riccio) and finds solace with the mysterious Poor Tom, who is really his son Edgar (a touching Damien Atkins). Nancy Palk is mournful and wise as The Fool.  

But more than anything, this was a case of the director Kim Collier’s concept that swallowed the production.  She didn’t trust Shakespeare’s play to tell the story or the audience to be able to figure it out without everything spelled out in phonetics.

Ken MacKenzie is usually an inventive, creative designer but you would hardly know it with the set he designed here.  The set is composed of two massive arched structures that are laboriously moved around the stage by the cast. When the structures are pushed together they practically take over the whole stage leaving a small space on which the cast has to act. The cast seemed to be pushing and pulling those cumbersome set pieces to establish a new location for every scene—as if the audience wasn’t capable of ‘imagining’ a new location without those unwieldy arches ‘setting’ the scene. And they had been moved so often it was hard to recognize where we were anyway.

You just cover your eyes in disbelief at some of Kim Collier’s directorial decisions. It’s not enough that in the very first scene Gloucester and Kent indicate that King Lear has already divided the land absolutely evenly, Collier adds a scene before that to show us King Lear dividing the land after much thought. There is Lear, alone, sitting on his throne, pondering, stroking his chin. He picks up a map of the land and holds it up so we can see it clearly. He puts it on the table and looks at it and strokes his chin. He wanders and ponders. He takes a ‘sharpie’ and makes two strokes in the map—voilá the kingdom is divided.  (The speech between Gloucester and Kent gives a subtle hint King Lear has divided the land amongst his sons-in-law–Cornwall and Albany—played by Philip Riccio and Jordan Pettle respectively, rather than the daughters).

In Kim Collier’s vision of King Lear there is a ceremony after Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, in which each daughter sits at a table, a binder with a document is placed in front of them by Edmund who then opens a rectangular box and takes out a pen for each daughter to sign. Mindboggling. In my edition of the play at least, Edmund is a stranger to the court. He’s been away for nine years. Kent recognizes him and Gloucester introduces him and the joke about him being a bastard. How then does Edmund have an administrative job in King Lear’s court making sure documentation is signed? One would think that logic has to come into the direction at some juncture, but not when the concept is more important than the play, I guess.  

In Kim Collier’s vision characters come and see other characters at their dwelling and the visiting characters drag luggage on wheels behind them, as if we can’t imagine they would come without a change of undies?

When Cornwall realizes that Gloucester might be a traitor to his cause he wants to do him harm. Regan suggests they hang Gloucester. Goneril suggests they “pluck out his eyes.” Cornwall thinks this is a good idea so he goes to his ‘weapons drawer’ and pulls out a gun.

I look at the gun, then at Gloucester’s eyes, then the gun and think, “REALY?? You’re going to shoot out his eyes?” (I’m actually rolling mine at this point.) Then Cornwall thinks better of it and puts the gun back in the drawer and takes out a knife that looks like it’s 10 inches long. “Really? Are you also going to do a lobotomy on the man as well,” I wonder?

(And to add another concerning note: After Gloucester is blinded, the blood is dripping down his face and Oliver Dennis as Gloucester gives the most touching speech, the two young actors behind him spend that speech wiping their hands of the blood–they held down Gloucester in the de-eyeballing scene– thus upstaging Oliver Dennis and distracting us from listening. Please stop that wiping. Please. STOP, at least until the speech is finished).

Decisions like these make the production cumbersome, silly, thoughtless and put a terrible burden on the cast, who work hard to do the play.  

At 3 hours and 45 minutes the production should be cut of all the set moving and other extraneous nonsense and just do the play.

Comment. I love the play. It’s so dense and complex about relationships. To me, Lear is an abusive father. You don’t get damaged daughters like that on their own. Ditto with Gloucester and Edmund. There is so much to explore. Kim Collier’s reputation as a director is one in which a dazzling concept is more important than actually digging into the text. This bloated production carries on that reputation. Ugh.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Plays until: Oct. 1, 2022.

Running Time: 3 hours, 45 minutes (!!) (2 intermissions).

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.