Shakespeare in the Park feels like a summer rite of passage. Every major city has at least one seasonal production of the Bard’s works, performed in an outdoor theater under the stars, and Toronto is no exception. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park is a local institution. So it may be surprising to learn that until this year I was a Shakespeare in High Park virgin!
I’ve lived in Toronto for five years now and I’m still slowly working my way through essential Toronto experiences. I’ve visited the Island, the Beaches, waited in line for instagramable food, trekked out to Scarborough to see the Bluffs, and visited the Christmas Market in the Distillery District. Shakespeare in High Park has always been on this to-do list, but it took a female-fronted production of King Lear for me to finally make it to a performance.
Canadian Stage sets Shakespeare in High Park’s Lear loosely in the 1600s, drawing inspiration from the reign of Elizabeth I, but its selling point is definitely the casting of a woman, stage veteran Diana D’Aquila, in the role of Lear. Her performance itself was transcendent, but the casting of a woman also allows this Lear to explore issues of what it means to be a powerful woman in a traditionally male-dominated role. Of note is the fact that, according to a director’s note, the play was originally approached with the thought that the audience would experience a female Lear in the context of a Hilary Clinton presidency. Instead, President Trump’s vision for the United States has brought misogyny in the Western World into sharper focus.
A female Lear allows for some fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Following in the example of Elizabeth I, Diane D’Aquila presents Lear as a once-powerful ruler in decline. Although I thought the opening scenes of the play, in which D’Aquila enters as a frail older woman in a white chemise and is dressed on stage, fitted into the black corset, hoop skirt, and ruffled high collar that show her to be a Queen, went on too long, I liked the concept and symbolism behind this ceremonial dressing.
Diane D’Aquila is the number one reason to watch this play. As Lear, she is captivating, portraying the mental decline of this once powerful woman, the anguish of loss and regret, and the tyrannical fits of fury expected from a woman who has never been denied in her life. At times she displays physical tics and tremors, as well as lapses in concentration that indicate a descent into senility, but these are subtle choices and never feel over-the-top. I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was on stage, and I held my breath as she staggered into the audience, climbing the outside arena’s stairs into the storm. D’Aquila admirably balances fragility and strength in her portrayal of this ailing monarch and it’s an incredibly sympathetic performance.
This masterful performance is just one more reason why a female Lear is such an interesting choice. While King Lear is one of the greatest roles a classical male actor of a certain age will play, it’s that much more difficult for older women to be cast in leading, or at least major, roles. Seeing a woman take on Lear, and do so with such success, was incredibly powerful to witness.
King Lear is perhaps not the most well-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies – Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet are more commonly cited as favourites – but I adore this play. For those new to King Lear, the play tells the story of an aging monarch, who plans to divide her kingdom between her three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and her youngest and dearest daughter Cordelia. Before issuing them each a parcel of land, she demands a declaration of love and devotion. While the eldest daughters extol Lear’s virtues and are rewarded, Cordelia speaks honestly and is banished. Goneril and Regan soon reject their mother, casting her out into a raging storm. Meanwhile Edmund, a bastard son, schemes to supplant his half-brother Edgar as heir to their father’s earldom.
At the heart of the play is the fraught relationship between Lear and her daughter Cordelia. The last actress I saw play the role of Cordelia was inexplicably wooden, and it threw off the whole dynamic of an otherwise solid production. Fortunately Amelia Sargisson is an excellent Cordelia. She is honest and compassionate in the play’s early scenes, creating a character who is likable and wronged by Lear’s ego. A highlight of the play was seeing Cordelia appear on the second level of the set, backlit, and surrounded by billowing smoke. I had chills watching this armor dressed Cordelia, a sword in her raised hand, rallying her troops. Seeing this scene in a play where Lear is portrayed by a woman adds a feminist undertone to the story, and I loved that Cordelia had this grit and determination without losing her compassionate nature.
The other performances were generally solid, particularly the sarcastic Fool (Robert Clarke), and Earl of Gloucester (Jason Cadieux). I liked Michael Man’s Edgar, but in this shortened version of the play it felt like the “B” story, featuring Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund, had less time devoted to it so we saw comparatively little of his Edgar.
My one complaint is with Edmund (Brett Dahl). I can’t say whether it was an actor’s choice or a case of direction gone wrong, but Dahl played Edmund as stereotypically gay, complete with a lisp and an inexplicable costuming choice where he was the only character wearing an open shirt (or no shirt at all!) for most of the night. I’m of two minds about the choice to play Edmund as homosexual. It does add an interesting element to the scenes between Goneril and Regan as they fight over Edmund’s nonexistent affections, because Edmund is all the more coldly calculating while he clearly plays the women for power/ambition. My problem with it is that the portrayal was just so over the top! Subtlety, thy name is not Edmund. There have been so many cases of the stereotypically gay or coded-as-gay villain in film and other mediums that it’s murky enough territory to wade into, but particularly with such an insensitive portrayal.
The costuming is also a little hit-and-miss. Shakespeare in High Park uses black-and-white costuming that melds the modern with the Elizabethan. This is most effective in Lear’s period black gown, which evokes Elizabeth I with her high ruff collar, and in the simple white chemise she wears underneath. I was less impressed by the more modern gowns worn by Goneril and Regan and the men’s costuming, which had a contemporary feel to it, despite the swords. Since Canadian Stage runs two Shakespeare productions in rep (this year Twelfth Night was the other play), set design has to work for both. This lead to a fairly sparse two level set, brought to life mostly by lighting (which I thought was well done) and a tall throne, which acts as an anchor for the production. The throne design is reminiscent both of a medieval torture device (there are straps for the ankles and wrists) and of the Iron Throne, an interesting commentary on the cost of power.
Some mixed results with the costumes and set and a portrayal of Edmund that didn’t work for me personally are minor complaints though in a production that feels so fresh and interesting. Diane D’Aquila’s performance alone was worth the trek to High Park, and there’s a lot here to admire, from a strong yet kind Cordelia, to the commentary on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated role. This was my first trip to Shakespeare in High Park and if the quality is generally this high, it certainly won’t be my last.
King Lear wrapped its summer run in High Park on September 3rd.
Photo of Jason Cadieux & Diane D’Aquila, by Cylla von Tiedemann.