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So Much Theatre: King Lear

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Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

The final production of this year’s National Arts Centre English Theatre season is Shakespeare’s King Lear. But it’s not just any King Lear; it is King Lear with an all-Aboriginal cast—the culmination of an idea actor August Schellenberg and the late director John Juliani had forty-five years ago – and, on top of that, Aboriginal costumes and setting – presumably the choice of director Peter Hinton. It’s not unusual for Shakespeare’s plays to be re-set in different periods and locales (in fact, these days it’s almost the norm), but there’s usually a reason for doing so. Is this, then, an Aboriginal King Lear? No. That would be grossly inaccurate. It is, rather, merely an Aboriginal-flavoured King Lear.

King Lear is Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy next to Hamlet. As he realizes old age is taking its toll on his capacity to rule, Lear (August Schellenberg) decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters Goneril (Monique Mojica), Regan (Tantoo Cardinal), and Cordelia (Jani Lauzon), and abdicate to spend the final years of his life in rest and ease. Unfortunately, he lets vanity and pride determine the division of his estate, and leaves himself powerless, at the whim of his two greedy and ambitious eldest daughters. As in all Shakespeare, when a King makes a Bad Decision, everyone suffers for it.

Owing to the unevenness of the performances, the production comes off as shockingly amateurish. It is almost as if each actor were from a different production of King Lear—and, like a hastily-assembled all-star hockey team, they don’t seem to belong together. It would be meaningless to say any one performance stands out, since they all do.
Kevin Loring is, by now, familiar to Ottawa audiences. As Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, his ambition is a catalyst for the total destruction of the social order that parallels Lear’s own decline and fall. He’s capable and energetic, but only in scenes where he interacts with other characters. His soliloquies, however, lack something vital. Goneril (Monique Mojica) is probably the strongest Shakespearian actor overall; her characterization is multidimensional and interesting, whereas some of the cast has trouble in both these respects. Lear’s Fool, also played by Jani Lauzon, wearing what could best be described as a shamanistic motley (with a Union Flag loincloth) is supposed to provide both comic relief and the wisdom Lear lacks; here the concentration is on the comic relief. As the Fool is about the only character consistently moving and reacting naturally throughout the piece, this relief is welcome.
What’s most disappointing is that Schellenberg flubs some lines—given the fact that this has been a dream of his for four decades, it’s a wonder that this is even possible. Lear should be the most powerful, present character on stage. His descent into madness (or senile dementia, depending on your interpretation) is supposed to be through violent anger to feebleness. The violent anger, the rage, these never come across; this Lear is feeble throughout. Since the impact of the play depends on Lear’s character arc, it ends up being not much of a tragedy at all.
Speaking with other audience members after the show, I found out that some of them were disappointed that there was no synopsis in the program as it was hard to follow what was being said—not the language, but the diction. Acting Shakespeare requires particular skills and a sense of the rhythm and meaning of the language, and that definitely varied from actor to actor.
Suzanne Keeptwo, the Aboriginal Advisor and Community Liaison for this production, gave an interview to Guerilla Magazine in which she raised the question of why “the institution of white man’s theatre” would “decide to depict this story as one that belongs to the Algonquin.”  That is an awfully good question.  What was the point, and did this production make it? If it was, as originally conceived, to prove or show that there are now sufficient Aboriginal actors of sufficient calibre to stage King Lear on a national stage with an all-Aboriginal cast, then yes—just barely. That purely symbolic objective is not, however, justification to charge an audience to see it. If the intention was—as it ought to have been—to present an interpretation of King Lear from an Aboriginal perspective, or with Aboriginal relevance, or emphasis on Aboriginal themes, then no. Far from it. Honestly, the first objective would have been better served by having the all-Aboriginal cast do King Lear without trying so hard to make it look “Aboriginal.” It’s as if someone thought that if you have Aboriginal people on stage the audience expects to see them in traditional (I don’t have the knowledge required to speak to its authenticity, so I’ll give the team the benefit of the doubt) dress, feathers and furs, running across the stage, tomahawks raised, emitting war-whoops. Because that actually happened.
I have gone on the record before as being a Shakespearian purist, and this is true to some extent. I believe that, despite archaic language, Shakespeare’s plays for the most part stand the test of time. Shakespeare’s best lines still get a laugh out of the audience, for instance—as long as you can hear them. I don’t think Shakespeare should never be done in modern dress, or set somewhere different, or cast gender-blind; these are all decisions a director can make in order to get across a particular interpretation. But those decisions had better be made to get across a particular interpretation, and not just for the hell of it.
During the production, hearing the lines, it occurred to me that there is, potentially, an Aboriginal reading of King Lear. This potential is as yet untapped.  One day, perhaps, an Aboriginal director will discover and develop its interpretation.  I look forward to that day.

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