Philip McKee’s association with LEAR’s Clare Coulter goes back to his National Theatre School days.
LEAR devised and directed by Philip McKee, with Clare Coulter, Lindsey Clark, Liz Peterson and Amy Nostbakken. Presented by World Stage and Harbourfront Centre at the Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). Opens Tuesday (March 5) and runs to March 10 at 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 4 pm. $30. 416-973-4000. See listings.
Like any rich text, King Lear offers multiple possibilities to a director.
For Philip McKee, whose LEAR opens Tuesday (March 5) as part of World Stage, Shakespeare's tragedy presents the chance to work with one of his favourite actors, the renowned Clare Coulter, and to explore the matter of legacy, in life and theatre.
"I like adapting classics, but the problem was finding a Shakespearean vehicle for an older woman other than the nurse in Romeo And Juliet," says McKee. "When I started considering casting across gender lines, Lear brought up a number of related ideas.
"Crack open a great play like this and you discover an unlimited world. I've learned that reworking a timeless text means carving out my own idiosyncratic space within it. Being director as well as ‘author' - I'm actually creating in collaboration with the company - is most satisfying when working with a script like this. Shakespeare is present, but there's a negotiation between the original and our take on the material."
McKee's been working on the show for nearly two years. An early version was part of Harbourfront Centre's Hatch series in 2011. Coulter, who collaborated with the director in several shows he directed while studying at the National Theatre School, was part of the work from the start.
In LEAR, McKee discovered, the switch from male to female ruler changes the nature of the parent/child relationship.
"The power dynamic we're looking at has become the relationship between young and old. The audience is quickly aware of that simply from what they see: a cast of women of various ages suggests something different than one comprised of an older male and younger females."
Central to McKee's exploration is the transmission of a legacy, an idea that operates on several levels.
"As a theatre maker, what I want to investigate is the question of ‘liveness,' that is, of what makes live performance special today. The most satisfying such experience for me is drama located in the theatre, so in my production the mechanisms of theatre are apparent and harnessed to communicate the story I want to tell."
There's also the legacy of an acting tradition, with Coulter, who's worked in Canadian theatre for four decades, passing her learning on to younger performers. Add the legacy that is Shakespeare's play being interpreted anew, and you have a series of interconnected, ramifying ideas.
All these ideas, of course, fit into the framework of the original, in which the aged Lear carves up his kingdom and bestows it on a new generation. Arguably, says McKee, that kingdom is in decline - or at least the possibility of decline is very real at the moment the king divides his power.
"The question we're dealing with, in each of the tiers of interpretation, is what does the process of transmission look like? How does the power shift, and what is the outcome of such a shift?
"As a company, we ourselves are trying to take control of a kingdom - both the theatre and this play - in a responsible way that doesn't betray our artistic or personal integrity in service to that theatrical kingdom."