Reviewed by James Karas
The Groundling Theatre Company has staged a nuanced, moving and superb production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The title role is played by a woman (Seana McKenna) and thus the play is called simply Lear.
Director Graham Abbey has found in Seana McKenna one of Canada’s best actors to play Queen Lear. She delivers a powerful performance, with meticulous inflection, intonation and dramatic depth. When she curses her daughter Goneril by invoking the goddess to: “into her womb convey sterility. / Dry up in her the organs of increase” and finishes with the curse that one day “she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” I found the words more terrifying because they are by a mother to her child. Lear’s descent into madness is developed with painstaking detail and McKenna emerges as an outstanding and memorable Lear.
Colin Mochrie, Diana Donnelly and Seana McKenna. Photo: Michael Cooper
Colin Mochrie, the Fool, has a broad face that looks comical as befits a jester but he can also turn serious when he delivers acute barbs at Lear. A refreshingly comical-serious Fool. A blonde Deborah Hay and a red-haired Diana Donnelly make a well-matched pair of evil doers as Goneril and Regan. Their greed, ambition and egocentrism stand out and they are indeed thankless and merciless children.
Cordelia (Mercedes Morris) comes out as somewhat bland compared to her brutal sisters but I suppose there is not much one can do with quiet virtue.
Jim Mezon gives a notable performance as the Earl of Gloucester. He is decent, generous and loyal but easily deceived and not very bright. The latter qualities bring (about) his downfall and in the end he becomes a tragic character that almost parallels Lear’s life.
Alex McCooeye, tall, and lanky, plays the snake-like, treacherous bastard Edmund while Antoine Yared plays the virtuous Edgar. Abbey eschews flourishes and soliloquies like Edmund’s “Thou, Nature, art my goddess” are delivered in a relatively low key.
The play is done in the intimacy of the Harbourfront Centre Theatre on a small acting area flanked by the audience on each side. The set by Peter Hartwell consists of a raised area with a desk that has a number of moveable planks that can be used to create a flat playing area or tossed around to emphasize dramatic moments. The intimacy of the theatre and the pace set by Abbey work extremely well in accentuating every move and every line of the play. Meticulous attention pays off.
Mercedes Morris, Colin Mochrie and Seana McKenna. Photo: Michael Cooper
The playing area, as I said, consists of a raised platform and this created a small problem in the final scene when Lear carries in Cordelia in his arms. It is the famous “Howl, howl, howl!” scene. McKenna could not possibly lift Morris and quite rightly drags her in on a sheet. The problem arises when she has to lift Cordelia’s body a few inches from the floor onto the playing area. Lear is almost chanting the heart piercing cry “Howl,” a highly dramatic moment, while trying hard to roll Cordelia’s onto the playing area. A few awkward moments that beg for a solution.
The costumes by Peter Hartwell were 19th century or thereabouts tails and cravats or black uniforms of uncertain description.
In all, however, this is a superb production of a very difficult play and it provides a great night at the theatre.