Canadians pride themselves on being hardy, but already this winter is proving to be a difficult one, dumping large amounts of snow on us along with brutal subzero temperatures. In these kinds of conditions, it’s tempting to take up hibernation, but the Groundling Theatre Company’s female-fronted production of Lear makes it worth your while to leave the comforts of home.
As the second production of this play to feature a woman as Lear that I’ve seen in four months, I can’t help comparing the Groundling Theatre production to last summer’s take on a female Lear at Shakespeare in High Park. Viewing either production is enough to leave audiences ruminating over the greater meaning that can be wrung from the play simply by casting a woman as the lead. Taken together, the Groundling Theatre Company Lear and Canstage King Lear make an eloquent argument for casting a woman in the title role, if not exclusively than certainly more often.
Set in the 16th century, this summer’s CanStage production emphasized female leadership in a male-dominated world, offering fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Groundling Theatre’s Lear takes a more intimate approach, focusing on the relationships between mothers and daughters. Of course King Lear is very much a play about filial relationships, but this production places them at the forefront, as a mad Lear repeatedly assumes that Poor Tom’s poverty is because he has daughters. As director Graham Abbey writes in the program notes, viewing the tragedy through a maternal lens makes more poignant Lear’s reaction to perceived ingratitude. Watching a bitter female Lear curse Goneril’s womb to sterility is shocking, while the primal wails of a mother who has lost her beloved daughter in the play’s final scenes are devastating to witness.
The talented cast is composed of screen and stage veterans, including several members of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company. Led by Seana McKenna, in a commanding performance as Lear, the diverse company excels. Mckenna’s Lear is blunt and precise in her interactions and dialogue. Her Lear is all sharpness and calculation except, as her fool points out, when it comes to her daughters. As her mind slips away, Lear’s edge dulls, revealing her underlying regret and tenderness. It’s a riveting performance to watch, although I’ll admit that I found Diana D’Aquila to be the more affecting Lear, in the Shakespeare in High Park production.
Jim Mezon is a steady and empathetic Gloucester, and Orphan Black‘s Kevin Hanchard is a marvelous Kent, demonstrating loyalty and steadfast devotion. Colin Mochrie, best known for his ongoing role on improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, may be the company member with the least Shakespeare experience, but he’s a good fit for the honest and wise fool, delivering his lines with perfect comic timing.
Lear’s elder daughters can often seem one-note, but Diana Donnelly and Deborah Hay are two of the stronger Regan and Gonerils I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Hay is especially interesting to watch, as she invests her character with a measure of empathy. Her Goneril seems initially to be simply a daughter at her wit’s end with a parent who is increasingly exasperating and verbally abusive, but her resolve strengthens as a play goes on. I liked Mercedes Morris, in a subtler performance, as Cordelia too. Her devotion to Lear is evident in calmly expressed pleas of faithfulness, but Morris could use to project more, as her quiet voice was sometimes lost in the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
In a memorably villainous turn, the towering Alex McCooeye is an affable Loki-esque figure as Edmund. Undoubtedly the dangerous and destructive black sheep of the family, he’s so damn charismatic you can’t take your eyes off him. His soliloquies feel like he is speaking directly to each member of the audience, and McCooeye admirably walks the line between comedy and drama, drawing laughs from the crowd when earned yet continuing to be a threat.
As his noble brother Edgar, Antoine Yared is likable in a solid performance. However, as more theatres take on Shakespeare’s classic plays with diverse and gender-swapped casting, it’s a bit of a shame to see Edgar repeatedly approached in such a traditional way. In my view of CanStage’s production I remarked on what a shame it was to see Edmund, the villain, queer-coded when Edgar could just as easily have been portrayed as a gay character. After the Groundling Theatre Co. production, my friend remarked on the inadvertent, but unfortunate, commentary made on women rulers, as all of the female characters are dead by the end of the play with only men left on stage as the lights come down. The solution she posited was casting Edgar as a woman too; Edith, if you will. It’s an idea that has a lot of merit, and I’d love to see a production of Lear that gives this a try.
This was my first Groundling Theatre Company show, but I gather clean, simple sets, and costumes that don’t correspond with any particular time or place are hallmarks of this emerging company. The minimalist but effective stage, which is constructed of interlocking monochrome blocks that can be rearranged to give the impression of doors, or a bed works well. There are some really lovely pieces of staging in here too. I loved the scene where Gloucester cannot see a letter proving Edgar’s treachery until he wears spectacles, and where the fool has an opportunity to showcase some tricks. However, I found the costuming, which draws upon everything from a formal waistcoat and cravat to infinity scarves, hoodies, and jeans, to be an oddly lazy choice that doesn’t serve to ground the play in any particular time and fails to create a cohesive vision.
I was more taken with the choice to include a live musician, percussionist Graham Hargrove. The percussion is largely understated, but adds vital tension as needed, and gives thundering voice to Lear’s infamous storm.
With a diverse and talented cast, Groundling Theatre Company’s production of Lear offers a nuanced portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, and commentary on the challenges of being a woman in a position of power. I have some minor complaints, for example I’d prefer that the costumes grounded a show in a particular time and/or place, and while I loved the percussion, it sometimes drowned out the actors in the storm scenes, but on the whole this is a thoughtful, well-acted, Lear that’s worth leaving the warmth of your home to see.
The Groundling Theatre Company production of Lear runs until January 28th at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
Photo of Mercedes Morris, Seana McKenna and Colin Mochrie, by Michael Cooper