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.

Queen Goneril

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

Written by Erin Shields

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

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

Queen Goneril is a smart, deeply thought feminist view of how Goneril, King Lear’s eldest daughter, keeps her own identity, advocates for herself and finds a place in that world, while navigating the world of powerful men who run things.

The Story. Queen Goneril by Erin Shields is a feminist look at women wanting to be considered as their own entities who can function, rule and administer as well as any man. It’s about women making due in a man’s world, but chomping at the bit to prove themselves. And it focuses specifically on Goneril as she is groomed, she feels, to succeed her father, King Lear, in leading the country as queen.

Queen Goneril takes place seven years before King Lear and focuses on King Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril, while also referencing Regan, the middle daughter, and Cordelia, the youngest to a lesser degree.  

King Lear gives Goneril every indication she will succeed him when he ‘retires’. He is grooming her for that very situation. He tells her announcement will be made soon. Goneril is smart, watchful and knows her father’s weak points. She has proven herself politically astute but of course she must contend with her father’s games playing.  He jokingly asks her to tell him how much she loves him, so there are many echoes of the play King Lear subtly slotted in Queen Goneril. The other daughters have their own issues but they are not jealous of Goneril.

Goneril patiently waits for the announcement of her succession. Then something happens and things go off the rails.

The Production. The production begins with a video conversation between Virgilia Griffith, who plays Goneril, and Tom McCamus, who plays King Lear. They are in their street clothes and not costumes. They discuss their characters and the play. Then very subtly and cleverly Tom McCamus begins to take over the conversation about Lear etc. Virgilia Griffith tries to interject and make her own points but it’s clear they are now playing the characters King Lear and Goneril. The video is interesting but unnecessary. Why do we need to see this video as a set up when the play Queen Goneril does such an exemplary job on its own?

Another problem is the assumption that everybody in that theatre would know who Virgilia Griffith and Tom McCamus are without having them introduce themselves at the beginning of the video. That assumption is a miss-step because there were people in the theatre who didn’t know who they were. Friends I sent to see both plays said that they thought Virgilia Griffith was in the video just to interview Tom McCamus and thought she interrupted him too often. They didn’t realize they were role-playing. A reasonable assumption if one hadn’t seen the plays or been to indie theatre where Virgilia is a fixture.  

Queen Goneril has the same cast and Ken MacKenzie’s unwieldy set but is directed by Weyni Mengesha. The set is not moved around as much as in King Lear so the changes in location are efficient and economical. Mengesha keeps the pace moving quickly and is more interested in telling the story than in showing off with a cumbersome concept. Mengesha’s direction is subtle, unobtrusive and yet detailed to reveal the play’s secrets. She establishes relationships beautifully and we see how characters play off each other.

One of the many things I love about Queen Goneril is that playwright Erin Shields has taken references and lines in King Lear and had other characters say them in Queen Goneril. The lines take on a fresh reference in Queen Goneril.  There are echoes of the television show, Succession in which a ruthless head of a company plays his children against each other to see who will succeed him. So seeing Queen Goneril after King Lear indicates the savviness of Erin Shields as a playwright. Shields is not using Queen Goneril to explain Shakespeare’s King Lear. Shields is making her own feminist statement about women, and in particular Goneril who are trying to thrive in a man’s world on their own terms.

Virgilia Griffith illuminates Goneril’s intelligence, poise and perception in her terrific performance. Goneril knows her father’s abilities as a king very clearly. She says he never thinks things through when he makes a decision.  For example, several hundred bodies of soldiers had been brought back to the kingdom from a recent war. The plan of course is to give the soldiers a proper burial, but as it was winter when they were returned, digging proper graves was not possible. So King Lear ordered the bodies to be piled up outside the palace gates until the spring. When spring came and the thaw, King Lear did nothing to arrange to bury the bodies. Then the summer and the stink and the ooze from the bodies was terrible. King Lear was urged to do something. He didn’t. So Goneril ordered the bodies to be burned and dealt with the problem that way, thus stopping the stench, possibility of disease, and giving the bodies and their families some kind of ceremonial closure. King Lear was livid. He said that Goneril did not realize the cost of what she did. No but she realized the consequences, which is not what King Lear could figure out.

 (Interesting observations from Goneril about Lear in Queen Goneril. In King Lear we only see Lear make one royal decision, to divide his kingdom, and it’s a disastrous decision).

Again, Tom McCamus as King Lear is bold, powerful, prickly and a bit of a loose cannon. He rages at Goneril in open court. When he looks like he will announce Goneril as his successor, he makes another announcement that has nothing to do with her. She realizes what he has done to her, again. Virgilia Griffith’s look of despair and disappointment as Goneril is heart-squeezing and totally realistic.  You can see her potential for being a wise and astute monarch who would rule fairly and with intelligence in Virgilia Griffith’s performance. She must overcome all sorts of prejudices about women but she is intelligent and you know she can out think most of her opponents.

The acting in Queen Goneril is uniformly fine. Jonathan Young as Edmund is thoughtful, courtly, open-hearted. Nancy Palk as Old Woman is perceptive, wise, seen it all and speaks volumes through her subtlety. Breton Lalama as Olena/Oswald is absolutely compelling.

Thomas Ryder Payne’s score and soundscape is impressive, but I found the storm thunder overpowered some of what Goneril had to say—and it was important to hear her words.

Comment. However it’s still a man’s world and that’s one of the many things that Erin Shields establishes in Queen Goneril. Queen Gonerilis of the time of Shakespeare and of our modern times. Queen Goneril is a terrific play and production.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Plays until: Oct. 2, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. (1 intermission)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adam September 22, 2022 at 12:20 am

It is very subtle, but the opening video appears to be partly scripted at least and both actors are playing characters. They refer to each other by other names (I recall Tom being referred to as Henry in the video). I think it is important to point out, so people do not assume the micro-aggressions in the video are in earnest.


2 Lynn September 22, 2022 at 8:20 am

Thanks for this, but I think there is the problem. People don’t realize it’s scripted because Tom McCamus and Virgilia Griffith do not actually introduced themselves as playing characters. There is the confusion for people who don’t know either actor or who they are playing. My point is to make it as clear to people as possible. But as I said, the video is not necessary if the play does its job, and it does. Thanks for the input. Best, Lynn Slotkin


3 Adam September 22, 2022 at 10:05 am

I agree completely. The folks I was with missed the characters names and I caught it only on the fly.