Soulpepper theatre is offering a unique experience for audiences at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the heart of the historic Distillery District. They’re currently producing Erin Shields’ Queen Goneril (directed by Soulpepper’s Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha), a prequel to Shakespeare’s classic King Lear (directed by Kim Collier). While both plays could easily be seen on their own, I was able to take in a double bill on Saturday, starting with the feminist, sensational Queen Goneril for the matinee and an absolute powerhouse of a production of King Lear in the evening. With the same cast playing their parts in both productions, it is a stellar accomplishment for everyone involved. I want to talk about each production on their own, and then I’ll get into a bit more of how they work together.
The video that is projected onto the set to begin Queen Goneril is not only exhibits the reality of the challenges faced by female actors (and particularly female actors of colour), but it also perfectly sets up the dynamics of the characters in the story we are about to witness. Set seven years before the events of Shakespeare’s play, Shields has created a companion piece which provides backstory, reasoning, and understanding of Shakespeare’s characters. As per the title, the focus in on Goneril, King Lear’s eldest daughter, who is watching her father age and the kingdom slowly disintegrate and knows that it’s time for her to take the reigns in terms of leadership. How she’s going to persuade the aging king of all of this is the main question the play seeks to answer.
What I found that the play did beautifully was to not solely focus on Goneril, but to give more attention to all three daughters, and give us a better idea on where their motives in Shakespeare’s play may be stemming from. The power struggle of parent and child, woman against the patriarchy, sister against sister, are all highlighted in this production as they are the storm in Goneril’s mind. When Goneril and Regan are out in the literal storm, screaming their woes to the heavens, I had goosebumps; not only because it was such a clear reflection of the iconic scene, but also because the issues against which these women are railing are still issues we rail against today.
Queen Goneril had this exceptional way of feeling old and new at the same time; while clearly set in days gone by, the lens through which these characters are being viewed and the ways they expressed themselves was decidedly modern and handled with great care and expertise. Shields brilliantly infuses her text with lines from Shakespeare, be they insults, famous quotations, or more nuanced references, it gives the audience a reminder of the world in which these characters exist and pays beautiful homage to the original work.
King Lear was stylistically a gorgeous antithesis to Queen Goneril while feeling like a clear continuation of the same story. With Shakespeare’s quintessential language dressed in modern clothing, King Lear was a marvel. I enjoyed how many moments I felt that I was able to witness for the first time: Lear and his train partying and creating havoc in Goneril and Albany’s home, including Lear striking Oswold (Goneril’s steward), as well as Goneril poisoning Regan’s drink at the end of the play. These are things we often hear about but don’t get to witness, and I feel like seeing and being seen was a major theme for this production. There were more witnesses to Gloucester’s eye-plucking than I think I’ve ever seen before! It shows the power Cornwall commands of his staff, not to mention the extreme ambition he and Reagan share.
I loved how much Edmund seemed to relish in being a villain, not quite in the same outward way as Aaron from Titus Andronicus, but with a subtle, calculated villainy which gets him exactly what he wants, for a short time anyways. Edgar’s performing his role of Poor Tom was probably the best I’ve ever seen the role done. It tore my heart apart as he was so visibly plagued by the “foul fiend” of his mind, despite it all being a ruse. Edgar was played so soft-spoken and gentle, that the loud, unpredictable Poor Tom was a clear juxtaposition. I found Lear’s madness to be equally as heartbreaking in this production as well. You could so clearly tell the moments of clarity from the moments of rambling, vicious madness, which makes it all the harder to watch. My partner was seeing Lear for the first time, and so I asked him at both intermissions where his empathy level for Lear was (as he had mentioned that this was something he was looking to explore throughout the play) and each time it was more and more as we witnessed Lear’s descent from grace and sanity.
The performances in both Queen Goneril and King Lear are nothing short of incredible. Virgilia Griffith truly anchors the first production in her role as the titular character. Along with Vanessa Sears and Helen Belay as Regan and Cordelia respectively, the three are truly the heart and soul of the plays. Watching their development from one play to the next was phenomenal. Tom McCamus goes from playing a slightly younger, party-loving Lear to an older, more erratic Lear in the blink of an eye (or total eclipse). What is consistent in the two performances is McCamus’ unmistakeable command of the stage and language. He is a treasure and I love witnessing his performances. As I mentioned previously, Damien Atkins did a brilliant job with Edgar/Poor Tom in Lear; I was in awe. Sheldon Elter performed incredible feats of strength, both physical and emotional, with his Kent. The entire cast gives brilliant performances, they bring the same life and energy to both plays.
I absolutely, without-a-doubt, recommend seeing these productions as a double-bill for a few reasons. First (and this is just a personal thing), is there a better way to spend a Saturday than in the Distillery District getting to see incredible theatre?!? For me, there truly isn’t. Second, (and what’s actually important) is that Shields has so brilliantly set up her play to lead right into Lear, it’d be a shame to have to wait even a night to go and see what’s clearly supposed to be the continuation of the story. Now I understand that seeing two plays at over 2 hours each is a little much for some, but I have to say it makes for an incredible, thought-provoking, brilliant day of theatre. I felt like Cordelia being so stubborn about answering Lear’s question made so much more sense, as did Reagan’s passion for Edmund. We get a better sense of who Lear was before his decline, making Shakespeare’s text all the more heartbreaking. While there were a few things that didn’t totally line up (why is Goneril also obsessed with Edmund? Would Regan really go to Gloucester for help after what he did to her?) there’s also a seven-year gap where we have no idea what’s been happening, what other alliances may have formed or what fallings out may have occurred. However, I did feel like I knew Lear’s daughters on so much more of a personal level after watching Queen Goneril. They have finally been given the voices which they’ve lacked for centuries.
Queen Goneril and King Lear are must-see productions. If you can’t see them both in one day, please try to get to see them both individually. I promise, it’ll be a theatrical experience you’ll never forget. For more information and tickets, visit: Soulpepper Theatre Company – Vital Stories, Connecting Us All.
Photo by: Dahlia Katz