Photo | Courtesy of Groundling Theatre Company

Shakespeare with a twist

To me, the thought of sitting through yet another production of Shakespeare wasn’t a very enticing one. However, a couple of names on Groundling Theatre Company’s program of LEAR had initially drawn me in: Colin Mochrie, a Canadian favourite from the improv television show Whose Line is it Anyway? was set to play the Fool, and Seana McKenna, an actress I refer to as “the Meryl Streep of the Canadian Stage” was the leading lady.   

The production presents a twist on the original story, where King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three children—so long as they declare their love for him. When his favourite child refuses to sweet-talk him solely for the sake of gaining the largest portion of the land, Lear grows angry and casts him away. The twist in this show was that there was no King Lear—but there was a Queen.  

The gender-swap strengthened the production, adding unexpected layers to the original. Lear, instead of being a bitter old man, is portrayed as a troubled mother dealing with heartbreak, forced to maintain a mask of authority. The opening scenes, when Lear’s two power-hungry daughters are declaring their affections for their mother, were genuine. Perhaps it was the added femininity that softened the exaggerated compliments and metaphors they spewed, but the words the actors spoke did not sound like tools to simply and selfishly help them gain power.  

McKenna’s portrayal of a person who has lost nearly everything, including her wits, was heartbreaking. I wanted to crawl up on-stage and hug her. The play began with her character in such a high position, absolutely commanding the room and having every gaze transfixed on her, and ended with her pushed to the margins and stripped of both family and sanity.  

In contrast to the highly-emotional performances, the set struggled to provide anything to the story. The stage was comprised of wooden panels that were positioned differently throughout the scenes. This failed as a visual aid in guiding the audience through the scenes, as wooden blocks in one scene looked suspiciously familiar to wooden blocks in another, whether it was in a courtroom or the exterior of a palace. The beginning scene had a decorated throne that McKenna’s character sat on, but then it was never seen again. It would have been interesting, perhaps, to keep the throne in the other scenes, but have different characters utilize it, to reflect the changing power dynamics throughout the play.  

Groundling Theatre Company’s production of LEAR altered the Shakespearian story  from an emotional perspective. Instead of being fuelled by chivalry and revenge, the story focused on greater introspection: characters driven forward by their guilt, shame, and subtle cruelty. McKenna was stellar as always, making her character’s fall in power utterly devastating. With a strong cast led by women and people of colour, creative twists were successfully applied to this classical story.