KING LEAR by William Shakespeare, directed by Joseph Ziegler, with William Webster, Diego Matamoros, Stuart Hughes, Patricia Fagan, Nancy Palk and Brenda Robins. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill). In previews, opens Wednesday (September 6) and runs in rep to October 18. $29-$54, stu $25, previews $35, limited rush $18. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
Chain mail hoodies, leather, men in kilts and a thrust stage jutting out into the audience: these elements sound like something you might expect at a fetish club. Instead, they're part of Soulpepper's staging of Shakespeare's tragic tale of family, betrayal and madness.
According to the trinity of actors playing the most infamous siblings of theatre Lear's three daughters the Joseph Ziegler-directed production doesn't need any gimmicks.
"Joe tries to approach any play, especially a Shakespeare play, from the inside out," says the commanding Nancy Palk, who plays Goneril.
"He's always going back to the text," chimes in Patricia Fagan, who plays Cordelia. Fagan's heart-shaped face and blue eyes sparkle with an unnerving earnestness guaranteed to bring any patriarch to his knees.
Brenda Robins, who plays Regan, shares her onstage younger sibling's blue-eyed intensity. Though she agrees that she draws most of her character's motivation from the script, she admits a little psychoanalysis also helps.
"From what I know about middle children, and what I also think is supported by the text, Regan is the least favourite sister," explains Robins. "She's the sister who got into a lot of trouble, and Dad had to bail her out. Then she married the toughest guy in the kingdom.
"But," she says, sliding her eyes teasingly at Palk (who's married to Ziegler), "Trish and I are Joe's favourites, so it wasn't a big stretch."
As the women laugh, it's impossible to miss their palpable closeness.
Palk and Robins were cast as sisters previously in CanStage's Dancing At Lughnasa, and the three have shared the stage many times.
"We've spent a lot of time sharing dressing rooms!" Fagan reports, breaking into a huge smile.
The actors' rapport and faith in the text means there's little to no back story required to explain their triumvirate power play. They've even covered off what might be an illogical bit of casting.
"Trish is a lot younger than Brenda and me," says Palk, "so one of the things we came up with is that Cordelia has a different mother. Lear's bias toward her is an annihilation of our mother's memory."
Palk thinks Goneril has borne the burden of excessive abuse in the Lear family.
"We hear so much about people who abuse having come from abusive families," she says. "Frankly, I think Regan and Goneril have a very strong case against Lear. He calls Goneril a bastard, curses her to the gods, wishes that she becomes sterile. Once I feel that kind of hate from him, it helps stir the pot."
Speaking of stirring the pot, almost nothing gets a bunch of thespians going like asking them to name the Bard's greatest tragedy. Hamlet or Lear?
"I understand Hamlet, how he's mired in personal turmoil, etc, but Lear's madness, his journey, what he experiences through the tempest are much more expansive and universal," says Palk passionately.
Fagan and Robins agree.
"You only need to step outside here, for example," Robins says, alluding to the fact that Toronto's hoity-toity Distillery District is perched at the end of Parliament, a low-income area marked by homelessness and desolation.
"It happens the minute someone asks you for money you experience the very real spectrum of human experience. So in that way I'd have to agree that Lear is more tragic, larger in terms of the human suffering it represents."