Queen Lear on the Canadian Stage

There are few things more unpleasant to watch than a director who thinks he or she is going to “fix” Shakespeare.

Canadian Stage’s production of King Lear demonstrates all the pitfalls of thinking that you know better than the Bard. Director Alistair Newton displays a rare degree of arrogance, playing so fast and loose with the text that the play becomes absolutely incoherent.

Granted, King Lear is without a doubt the hardest play to stage. It is long, convoluted, and often borders on the surreal. It is very easy to go wrong with a production of Lear so I always go with a sympathetic heart. But it’s hard to have sympathy with Newton’s decisions in this show. Its only redeeming quality seems to be its brevity.

There were so many things wrong with this production, that I worry that my review will devolve from coherent criticism into a ranting list. If it does, I apologize, but at the same time, it is hard to give a coherent critique of a incoherent play.

The cuts to the script were done without regard for the meaning of the words. I lost count of how many lines were cut halfway through a sentence, leaving an actor to recite a line or two and then stop. The Fool appears to have gotten the shortest end of a very short stick here, with many of the punchlines to his jokes and puns simply cut off, either because the director didn’t get the joke, or presumed his audience wouldn’t.

New dialogue was written for both Cordelia and Edgar, totally destroying any coherent sense of identity for the latter. Newton has Edgar disguise himself as a servant in Cornwall’s household rather than play a madman in the wilderness. He then becomes the servant who tries to stop Cornwall from putting out his father’s other eye. Why he assists in capturing his father and standing idly by while his first eye is plucked out is unexplainable. Newton also has Regan finish off her husband after he is wounded by the servant/Edgar and she puts out Gloucester’s other eye while Edgar runs away, once again for no discernible reason, because at that point Regan has killed Cornwall and she is now outnumbered onstage by Edgar and Gloucester. The changes create unanswerable questions and ruin some of the most interesting elements of the drama. The anonymous servant’s defiance of Cornwall’s cruelty is one of the most powerful moments in all of Shakespeare; entire books could be written about it. To change the servant to Edgar removes the power of the scene and introduces a dozen distracting questions.

Actors were evidently not coached in how to pronounce common words in Shakespeare, demonstrated when one actor pronounces “i’ th’ mire,” as “I the mire” with a long I.

Random bits of other plays were copied and pasted in, with Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest given to the dying Gloucester just before his two sons’ duel. Why?

Despite Shakespeare’s very deliberate pagan setting for King Lear, Newton decided that all references to “gods” should be changed to a Christian monodeity. Once again begging the question, why?

Perhaps the most embarrassing misstep in the entire script, was a bit of dialogue in which Lear says that if Regan is not happy to see him, then his wife must have been unfaithful and Regan not his biological daughter. This obviously fits thematically and makes sense for a King Lear, but somehow the director managed to have the presence of mind to change the reference to Regan’s “mother” to “father,” but didn’t pause to consider that it would be biologically impossible for Queen Lear to not know if Regan is her daughter. Once again, perhaps the director expected no one to notice.

Edmund was played as flamboyantly homosexual, with a short-lived flirtation between him and Cornwall. There are blatantly homosexual characters in Shakespeare, and I obviously have no opposition to a queer interpretation of other characters in various contexts if it adds something to the story — or at least doesn’t detract from it. The best Hamlet I ever saw was played by a woman — the character was played as a woman, it wasn’t a woman cross-dressing — and her relationship with Ophelia took on a fascinating new dimension as a result. The mincing, effeminate Edmund inexplicably slapped on the ass by Cornwall didn’t tell me anything except perhaps that the director thinks the play is boring without it.

The only performance worth watching was Diane D’Aquila as Queen Lear. The others were either promising but hamstrung by sloppy text decisions on the part of the director— as was the case with the Fool played competently by Robert Clarke — poorly conceived, wooden, or entirely unsympathetic. You can only offer sympathy for a talented actor like D’Aquila being such a good sport with a sophomoric director like Newton.

From the purgatorial first ten minutes of watching the Queen being meticulously dressed by her servants to the tune of a twinkling music box — during which I just wanted to scream out ‘yes, we fucking get it’ — to the chess match — yes, an actual bit of chess played on stage — that served to symbolize the climactic battle between the English and Cordelia’s French forces, this production is endlessly arrogant and self-congratulatory. The only powerful emotion summoned up by this slapdash bit of theatre is the urge to find Alistair Newton, dress him up as Nahum Tate and push him into traffic. This production was the intellectual masturbation of a faux-woke softboy who thinks that his clumsy attempts to “fix” Shakespeare’s politics are an acceptable substitute for actually making good art.

The enduring legacy of this production for me will be that my review of it has managed to mischaracterize me as a textual purist and reactionary. I should state for the record that I am neither. I embrace the cutting and modification of Shakespeare’s text, the cross-gendering of roles, queer interpretations, as long as they are coherent, consistent, and tell us something about humanity we may not have already known. Mr. Newton’s changes only serve as a megaphone for him to scream at the audience about how smart he is for 90 minutes.

The kindest thing that I can say about Alistair Newton and this production is that he is right that there are gender issues to be addressed in this play. Any discussion of political power in the Renaissance —or in the 8th century BCE for the matter — cannot avoid the issue of gender, and Lear himself might be the most misogynistic character in all of Shakespeare. In the hands of a talented director who has actually read the play, a similar Lear could work brilliantly. But Newton is too lazy to make such an ambitious and challenging idea work.