New LEAR Plays With Gender, Age, and Legacy
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New LEAR Plays With Gender, Age, and Legacy

Legendary actress Clare Coulter teams up with a team of young artists for an adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear.

Clare Coulter faces her own legacy, as well as an old king, in Philip McKee’s LEAR. Photo by Guntar Cravis.

Harbourfront Centre Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West)
March 5 to 10, 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 4 p.m.
stars 4andahalf

King Lear is often considered a sort of “end of the line” character—a part that celebrated actors undertake when they want to cap off a long, storied career. However, this isn’t always acknowledged, especially not by people involved in a production of the play. But LEAR, an experimental, stripped-down adaptation of William Shakespeare’s original, deliberately intertwines the ideas of confronting one’s legacy as an actor and confronting one’s legacy as a ruler. In the starring role is 70-year-old stage legend Clare Coulter, with 30-year-old director and creator Philip McKee at the helm.

McKee’s reimagining of the show began with him simply seeking out a strong Shakespearian role in which he could cast Coulter, whom he knew from his time at Montreal’s National Theatre School. The character of Lear, though not one ordinarily played by a woman, presented certain interesting parallels. Lear divides his declining kingdom and splits it between his daughters, two of whom eventually turn on him and drive him mad. Coulter, meanwhile, says her pioneering role in Canadian theatre is currently being usurped by a younger generation of actors and creators. McKee capitalizes on that similarity in a brooding, technical, slow-paced play that’ll leave you reeling.

In McKee’s staging of LEAR, the Harbourfront Centre’s studio and the technical aspects of theatre are as much characters as King Lear (Coulter) and his daughters Goneril (Liz Peterson), Regan (Amy Nostbakken), and Cordelia (Lindsey Clark). Through a slit in the stage’s red velvet curtain, we see glimpses of a giddy Lear dressed in an ornate black gown, and then in an exotic and rich outfit, much like the elaborate costumes an actor might wear in his or her prime. However, when the curtains open up, it looks more like we’re watching a rehearsal in a gloomy basement. Goneril and Regan wear casual tights and baggy sweaters, and Lear has traded his formal wear for cargo pants and a heavy, floor-length coat. Styrofoam cups stand in for Lear’s kingdom, which Coulter places carefully on a long, plain, wooden table. A black-tarp backdrop gives the impression that the whole thing is taking place inside a garbage bag. But the only standout technical element—a simple microphone set up on the table by Regan and Goneril—is enough to give the play’s opening an arresting tension.

Without giving too much away, when Regan and Goneril flip on their father, so does the physical space, in a way that surprises the audience just slightly less than it does Lear. Because of this, the viewers are implicated in Lear’s loss of power, which is an interesting comment on the role that audiences play in ushering older actors out of the collective consciousness. But McKee doesn’t leave it there. After we see Lear literally deprived of the spotlight, all members of the production—stage manager, sceneographer, and dramaturge—have a part to play in slowly taking away Lear’s power and dignity.

Which isn’t to say that the message of this show is that the young will inherit the earth. In a wordless scene, Regan and Goneril test their physical endurance against each other until they’re both defeated. All that’s left is an incredibly moving farewell from Coulter, demonstrating how she became so renowned in the first place. She may be passing the torch to a new generation, but it’s one that is clearly bright and fiery. And in the hands of newcomers like McKee, it won’t be extinguished any time soon.