King Lear: a soapy summer of camp, violence and heartbreak
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Our first attempt to enjoy King Lear at Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park was foiled by inclement weather. Finally, on a glorious summer evening, we savoured a fast-paced version of the Shakespearean tragedy that was garnished with just a soupcon of camp. Graced with a towering performance by Diane D'Aquila as Queen Lear, this King Lear provides much comedy before, as befits a tragedy, building to a shattering climax.
While cross-gender casting Lear him/herself allows for some commentary on gender roles, it is the little tweaks that are even more intriguing. The duplicitous Edmond is introduced, positioned just-so, bared chest bathed in sunlight. As Brett Dahl possesses a distractingly defined set of abs, he is impossible to ignore or resist. As is his flirtation with Kristiann Hansen's Duke of Cornwall. A gay villain is a nice treat, but it becomes confusing when Edmond seduces both the fiery Naomi Wright (Kiss, Julius Caesar, A Room of One's Own) as Goneril and her hilariously bloodthirsty sister Regan (Hannah Wayne Phillips). Bisexuality is more villainous?
The Fool is also portrayed as a crossdresser, clad in the huge hoop skirts that are a symbol of the subjugation of women. On the night we attended director Alistair Newton (Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical) stepped in for the ailing actor who usually essays the pivotal role of The Fool. It is not fair to judge Newton's performance or interpretation, but it should be fascinating as it either grows or is returned to the actor who promised a Leigh Bowery-esque interpretation. Watching D'Aquila interact with manic queer energy would give King Lear another jolt.
Not that this King Lear needs more energy. The narrative is made crystal-clear by emphasizing the more soap opera-esque elements - nefarious plots! illicit liaisons! sealed letters containing dark secrets! - and passions boil at a fever pitch. The climactic swordfight swashbuckles and when the Earl of Gloucester's eyes are gouged out in a Grand Guingol moment, the audience roared with horror and delight. Part of the intensity of the reaction was that the earl is essayed by Jason Cadieux, rolling the prose with ease and maintaining his sex symbol status despite a streak of grey and playing an elder statesman.
Jenni Burke struts as the Countess of Kent and zings out one-liners in iambic pentameter. She also crossdresses as a drag king peasant, making much mockery of macho bluster. Peter Fernandes (Onegin) is both a studly courtier consort and a soldier of death, while Michael Man's Edgar is nimble and noble. Cordelia, Amelia Sargisson, returns in a cloud of smoke, wielding a sword like a drag queen Joan of Arc. That, and Lear's seat of power evoking Game of Thrones mashed with the local BDSM dungeon, added the camp that alas this production only touched on. There was no need to shy away, the audience cheered with approval when Hansen lingeringly patted Dahl's ass.
More opera and less soap opera would have made King Lear even more memorable. But it must be difficult to balance a unique interpretation with the demands of a family venue requiring simple clarity and not frightening the horses. This King Lear rollicks and rockets along while still managing to achieve a denouement that is powerful and heartbreaking. Nestled in High Park, surrounded by picnicking children, ice cream stands, dog parks and sports arenas, King Lear is a summer's evening of culture and dead white guy prose rendered highly entertaining and on the verge of being subversive.
King Lear continues in repertory with Twelfth Night until Sun, Sept 3 at the High Park Ampitheatre, 1873 Bloor St W. canadianstage.com