Oy. It’s been a while. A stupendously busy January, a long February, ten days in bed with the plague (or else a flu I caught in the UK). Sorry, reader.

But I am back with happy news: there IS exciting classical theatre in Canada after all. I have just witnessed the most riveting performance of a Shakespeare play I have seen in this country since I moved here eight years ago, Philip McKee‘s Lear at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Some will gripe that it’s not Shakespeare’s play at all, that it’s a very loose adaptation, but whatever: all the text is Shakespeare’s, the characters are Shakespeare’s, the overall structure is pretty much Shakespeare’s, and the rest — well, the rest is exactly what a performance should be: an exciting, surprising, upsetting, unsettling, puzzling, challenging effort to turn an old play into a contemporary show.

J. Kelly Nestruck’s review in the Globe and Mail did a pretty good job of summarizing what McKee and his ensemble have put on stage, and I don’t think I could do better than him. Instead, I’ll just list a few of my favourite moments. And some things I didn’t like. And I’ll say something about why this was such a wonderful piece of theatre despite my sense that it didn’t absolutely all add up.

For one thing, McKee’s Lear is a hugely, unabashedly, deliberately theatrical production. The first thing you see is a row of floodlights attached to the first row of seats, lighting the kind of red curtain few theatres have anymore, framing a glimpse of set; and when Clare Coulter’s Lear passes across the stage behind that curtain, stops, and glances out at us with a sly smile, it’s pointedly unclear whether that’s Lear looking at us or Coulter. We get to watch Goneril and Regan record the noises that will later turn into the soundtrack of their competitive movement number. We see every scene change, naturally. And a third of the way in, we wind up on stage, having been sent there by Goneril and Regan. Or by Liz Peterson and Amy Nostbakken — I’m not sure whom I was talking to. But in spite of that theatricality — no, better: because of it — the production has a huge emotional impact. Right after we’re placed on stage, a projection screen descends from the proscenium, slowly, noisily (again pushing the theatrical machinery and its sort of embarrassing presence in our faces), shutting us in with Coulter’s Lear standing right in front of us in the near-total darkness. She’s finally only lit by the dimmest orange light as she finishes Lear’s “Reason not the need” speech. It’s a claustrophobic moment, a little scary — locked in a very dark room with a group of total strangers, one of whom is pretending to be an old man. It’s also a very ostentatiously theatrical moment: the situation couldn’t possibly be more contrived, more artificial. And it’s a breathtakingly powerful moment, utterly riveting. I could not take my eyes or ears off Lear.

Shortly after this, with the lights and the screen back up, Coulter slathers white paint on her face and and bare arms and legs before being led off stage, into the auditorium, by the lighting operator (I think — I somehow didn’t get a program, much to my dismay). When she comes back on, the paint has dried, and from that moment on, every move she makes showers the stage in white dust, dust that catches the light as it falls. Lear is almost literally decomposing in front of our eyes, and it’s gorgeous. And then Cordelia washes Lear’s face, mingling the white dust with water. It’s messy and visceral, and every detail matters — we are so close to the performers, under the same bright lights, that the tiniest things stand out: the drip patterns on the grubby stage floor, the way the light catches the water that has run down onto Lear’s hands. And when Coulter eventually gets up and slowly is led off stage by Cordelia, every wet footprint signifies: leave-taking, trace-leaving, an end and a memory. Again, all of this is totally and entirely theatrical: the paint is obviously paint and nothing else. The stage is the stage. And yet, that very refusal to pretend that anything we see is anything other than what it is produces genuine pathos.

Why is this so wonderful to me? Partly because it takes theatre seriously as theatre. This isn’t a film. This isn’t anything like reality. It’s made. It’s made up. But its made-ness and made-up-ness are the sources of its power. And partly because in taking this attitude, McKee remains extraordinarily true to Shakespeare’s own understanding of theatre. Which is why it would be precisely wrong to call this an “adaptation.” It’s one of the most faithful realizations of a Shakespeare play I’ve seen, because it gets that basic principle so very right: that Shakespearean theatre insists on its own inauthenticity, and that that insistence is its primary means of creating authentic effects — or authenticity effects.

I’ll just mention one other moment I loved. It’s true that McKee has only retained a fraction of Shakespeare’s text. But despite this extreme verbal economy (or thrift), he runs a good chunk of the play’s first scene — Lear’s ill-fated division of the kingdom — four times, first (in a very Elizabethan/Jacobean move) as a dumbshow, then thrice with the lines in play and a Lear that gets more and more angry and exasperated as every repetition yields the same results, cutting off the predictably smarmy Goneril and Regan almost instantly (although they, defiantly, keep talking), desperate to get to Cordelia, desperate for a better, a more satisfying answer — an answer that naturally doesn’t, clearly can’t come. AGAIN it’s a determinedly theatrical scene: the text is obviously the same every time. It’s also metatheatrical, as Lear is frustrated as much by his condition as a character in a predetermined script as by his youngest daughter’s recalcitrance (and, remarkably and surprisingly, by his elder daughters’ obsequiousness — he wants to hear them less and less with every repetition). Just as elsewhere the production achieves Shakespearean effects by cutting or reshuffling the text, here it delivers a real insight into the play and its characters by going over the same textual ground multiple times. Neither method is “faithful” in a conventional sense; both methods as practiced here are more insightful and revealing than most conventional, purportedly “faithful” approaches I’ve seen.

As I said, I didn’t like absolutely everything. For some reason, combining Lear and the Fool into one, turning the Fool into a doll, didn’t quite work for me. It was a nice scene, nicely staged, but its particular theatricality didn’t translate into the same kind of immediacy that I admired so much elsewhere in the show. I will also say that some of the verse speaking was a little less than stellar — perhaps a strange thing to critique in a production like this, but something that bothered me. Coulter speaks wonderfully, switching from a very conversational delivery to a fairly heightened style as she wishes. The same isn’t quite true of the daughters. It’s not that I wanted them to follow any one of the many competing models of how to speak Shakespeare “correctly.” There are many ways of putting voice to this kind of text, from a kind of radical naturalism to a slavish reproduction of metrical stresses and line endings. I don’t especially care for the latter, but in general I don’t really care. What does bother me is hearing the verse as verse, especially if the overall effect suggests that the actor doesn’t quite know why he or she is pausing at a particular moment, what exactly is being said, and why it’s being said this way. And there were at least two moments in this production where I was distracted by that kind of verse speaking. (I should hasten to say that I can’t recall seeing an RSC production this century that didn’t also feature a generous smattering of such moments, so this may be a general malaise.) And that’s a bad kind of metatheatricality. I like being reminded that what I’m watching isn’t real. I don’t like being reminded that the person in front of me may not quite know what she’s talking about. What else? Well, although I admired the decision to compress the conflict between Regan and Goneril into a single, quite extraordinary movement sequence, and see the virtue in reducing that conflict to a form of contact-free combat, it’s also a staging decision that loses as much as it gains. The scene seems to suggest that the two sisters are competing over who is better at mimicking their father, or perhaps at reinterpreting the role of monarch — but that’s not really the nature of their competition in the play. It’s both simpler and in some ways less interesting than Shakespeare’s version. Lastly, although the production manages to resurrect a lot of the emotional energy of Shakespeare’s play, and to put newly intriguing and affective versions of some of his characters on stage, what it bypasses almost entirely, what it leaves merely implied, is the plot of King Lear. The strength — the huge strength — of this show has very little to do with storytelling, and relies far more on putting the audience in a certain situation vis-a-vis the actors and the characters, on giving us an experience rather than allowing us the illusion that we are witnessing events. (It’s probably not a big surprise that I don’t really consider that a bad thing. At all. But it’s still the aspect of the show that I find most puzzling and worthy of more in-depth discussion.)

But — and it’s a major but — ultimately none of this mattered one bit. Of course this isn’t a flawless performance. There is no such thing. It’s a wondrously daring performance, though: one that tries to find new theatrical vocabularies to express Shakespeare’s thematic preoccupations and to turn Shakespeare’s text into a living performance, one that is not afraid to do to that text what is necessary to keep it alive, one that is not afraid to draw our attention to what is real — the material things in front of us, the visceral presence of the performers, in all their strength and weakness, their youthful energy or their dignified and painful frailty, their sweat, their tears, their spit — in order to bring what isn’t real — Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia — temporarily to life. It’s a massively courageous, gutsy, and inspiring piece of theatre. And, perhaps most exhilarating of all for me, it’s a piece of theatre that fully takes for granted that its audience is in some sense at home in a theatrical tradition — that assumes that we all know King Lear, have perhaps seen other productions of it, and don’t need another by-the-numbers version; assumes, in fact, that doing such “faithful” stagings blocks rather than allows fresh access to plays such as Shakespeare’s, that in order to get at what’s interesting or exciting about works that are otherwise at risk of being smothered by their very familiarity one needs to rescue them from tradition and convention. That’s to say, McKee’s Lear actually takes seriously the existence of a canon of classical theatre in Canada, and takes the category of the classical seriously. It’s a production that understands that classics demand attention, demand interventions, demand that actors, directors, and audiences interact with them as equals — and understands that placing 17th-century works in a pretty polished glass case only gives them a semblance of life, like taxidermy. This Lear is as far removed from theatrical taxidermy as any show I’ve seen in Toronto.

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