LEAR by William Shakespeare, adapted by Philip McKee (World Stage/Harbourfront Centre). At the Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). To Sunday (March 10), Saturday and Sunday 4 and 8 pm. $15-$30. 416-973-4000. See listing. Rating: NNNN
In some ways, the World Stage production of Lear turns Shakespeare's play on its head. But in others, it captures much of the majesty and vastness of the Bard's tragedy.
Created by director Philip McKee with his cast and design team, the production looks at the conflict between generations and the dissolution of an order that might itself be flawed at the play's outset.
McKee's central change is to give the title role to the extraordinary Clare Coulter, who we initially see peeking through the curtain at the Studio Theatre, her clothes increasingly grand the first few times we glimpse her. Lear's daughters (Liz Peterson as Goneril, Amy Nostbakken as Regan and Lindsey Clark as Cordelia) handle the stage management duties to set up the court: a plain table, Styrofoam cups, a roll of paper representing a map.
We hear snippets of that first scene of Shakespeare, in which Lear divides his kingdom - pronouns aren't changed for this adaptation - among his children and grows upset with Cordelia when she won't fulsomely proclaim her love as her sibs do. Central lines are repeated again and again, the ruler moving from comic disbelief to full-blown anger; overlapping and compression make the episode increasingly intense, especially when Lear's stormy lines to Kent from the original are directed at Cordelia.
From one point of view, this version of Lear is a psychodrama, much of it taking place within the mind and memory of the king. It's certainly a very personal version, the role of the Fool played by a puppet, with Coulter voicing the lines for both Lear and Fool - possibly a dialogue going on in Lear's head?
Coulter addresses and often confides in the audience, at times working so close to us that we can feel the electricity, immediacy and searing power in her words and emotions. Always enthralling, Coulter holds our attention, even when Lear is - in several ways - cut down in size. Lear's disrobing scene in the storm has rarely been so simple or so eloquent.
She may be impish in the first minutes of the play, but this Lear becomes a figure who deserves our sympathy. Clare gives extra richness to an already resonant text.
Characters frequently exit the stage and even the theatre, returning to play out later scenes from the play. That's not the only way McKee uses the space, for he sometimes flips our traditional way of looking at a theatre. He also reshapes the material, occasionally giving various characters' lines to the four performers. Goneril and Regan replay/relive the first scene in mime, their competition for Lear's affection becoming an athletic event. Later, Lear and Cordelia speak the Gloucester/Edgar scene at Dover; the parallel works, since both sets of characters include a caring child who shepherds an erring parent.
McKee's unusual reading of the material won't convince everyone, but it's true to the essence of Shakespeare. And with Coulter's deeply felt performance in the main role, the production is a memorable one.