'Queen Goneril' by Erin Shields and 'King Lear' by William Shakespeare

Soulpepper at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto's Historic Distillery District

Dahlia Katz

Joe Szekeres

(Updated September 6, 2022)

Two artistic performance masterclasses of exhilarating storytelling.

It is possible to see Erin Shields’ ‘Queen Goneril’ (directed by Weyni Mengesha) or Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ (directed by Kim Collier) and still enjoy a wonderful evening at the theatre.

Soulpepper Artistic Director Mengesha encourages audiences to see both productions in whichever order they choose.

That’s what I did the first Saturday for a total of approximately 6 hours and 15 minutes – ‘Queen Goneril’ for the matinee and ‘King Lear’ for the evening. Yes, there is a dinner break of two hours.

'Queen Goneril’ takes place approximately seven years before ‘King Lear’ where we see the possibility that the eldest daughter of the reigning monarch will be crowned queen upon her father's death. It is also here in Shields' 'Queen Goneril' where we begin to see the deterioration of King Lear's mind and his thoughts begin to unravel which then segues to the current story from the Bard that we know.

I wholeheartedly concur with Weyni’s statement, but I will take it one step further.

To see both plays, whether back-to-back, the next day or the next week, remains an absolute necessity for theatre lovers. Not only did it enrich my appreciation of Shakespeare’s text as I got to see and experience Erin Shields’ creative backstory of the characters, but it also allowed me to see thrilling performance delivery by confident artists who, according to her programme note: “wanted to write [and tell] a good story about complicated characters struggling – the way we all struggle – to find their place in this world.”

As a retired secondary school teacher of English Language and Literature, I recommend seeing ‘Queen Goneril’ first as it does help to explore why the characters in ‘King Lear’ behave, speak, and respond in the manner they do.

These two productions remain another example of Soulpepper’s finest storytelling under Weyni Mengesha and Kim Collier’s unafraid vision in their direction of showing true human nature and what it is capable of doing.

Both sets become strong indicators the audience enters a royal and regal world unlike their own. Ken MacKenzie and Judith Bowden’s extraordinary set and costume designs fully captured my attention. The lushness of the reds and blacks is a sight to behold. The actors are certainly getting their workout in moving those monolithic-looking pillars. Kimberly Purtell and Thomas Ryder Payne’s lighting and sound designs/composition once again finely underscore and enhance the ever-changing moods and dramatic tensions. The rumbling sounds of the raging storms in both plays enveloped the Baillie Theatre with uber gusto.

In ‘Queen Goneril’ there is a plausible character arc of development within the three sisters. Virgilia Griffith, Vanessa Sears, and Helen Belay offer three kinetically charged performances which they carry over into ‘King Lear. Griffith’s Goneril is a bona fide take-charge leadership personality. Sears’ Regan pushes the boundaries (and that is clear when she appears at her father’s party with the drunken soldiers). Belay’s Cordelia wants to maintain peace at all costs, and she is even mocked by her sisters for it, and I felt badly for the youngest daughter as the older two are merciless.

But ‘Queen Goneril’ offers an interesting, presumptive context that I hadn’t considered before regarding ‘Lear’. The women struggle and try to survive within a patriarchal society that is at odds with what they wish to accomplish in their lives. I found it interesting how Goneril may have become impregnated by her servant, Olena, who later becomes Oswald (Breton Lalama) in ‘King Lear’, and all of this is unravelled in a side plot about a missing music box.

Additionally, I now have a new context for understanding the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out in ‘Lear’. Originally, I found Regan to hold such a profound disregard for any life, let alone the life of Gloucester.

However, Shields presupposes in ‘Queen Goneril’ that a drunken Gloucester (Lear’s closest friend) molests and assaults Regan in the wine cellar of her home. She carries this dark secret with her for years even into her marriage with the Duke of Cornwall. Yes, our modern context states what Goneril does is horrific, brutal, and bloody (and that moment is heightened during the performance) and that doesn’t excuse the crime committed against Gloucester, but now there is a reason why Regan does nothing herself to stop her sister from inflicting the brutal treatment of the old man.

That same character arc of development becomes ostensibly plausible for the men in both plays. In ‘Goneril’ we see continued evidence of how Gloucester foolishly jokes and tells others how Edmund was begotten outside of the marriage bond and how Edgar was favoured over his brother. Jonathan Young’s Edmund beautifully incorporates that sardonically wicked grin on his face that I just wanted to smack oh so many times. Damien Atkins remains a stoic Edgar throughout especially in his moments as Poor Tom, but his scenes with a defeated Gloucester, his father, become heartbreaking and moving. Sheldon Elter becomes a truly honourable and noble Kent, especially at the end of ‘Lear’.

Tom McCamus and Oliver Dennis remain stalwart, powerful father figures as Lear and Gloucester. I always like hearing Lear’s line when he wanders through the storm with the Fool at his side: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”. McCamus and Dennis become haunting reminders of the fragility of our lives even in those moments where we recognize we have fallen away from those whom we love. This is most evident in ‘Lear’ when Lear and Gloucester reach out to each other and recognize how they have fallen from grace.

There are memorable supporting player moments. Jordan Pettle is a fiery Duke of Albany in his confrontation scene with Virgilia Griffith’s Goneril regarding the crime committed against Gloucester. Philip Riccio’s initially watchful and quiet Duke of Cornwall becomes a heinous monster when he plucks out Gloucester’s eyes, holds them up for all to see and then drops them on the floor and proudly stamps them. This image was so frightening that an audience member sitting near me had their eyes closed so as not to watch what was happening. I too found myself averting my eyes quickly.

Breton Lalama’s Olena/Oswald is another intriguing element from ‘Queen Goneril’ that I wanted to watch closely. Olena is first introduced as Goneril’s servant dressed in women’s clothing who is helping their mistress change clothes. Now, I hear what I assume to be a male voice dressed in women’s apparel. Yes, it did jar my attention momentarily. However, I bought it because let’s remember women were not allowed to perform in the theatre during the Elizabethan era. Female roles would have been played by men. To watch how Olena becomes Oswald in ‘Lear’ is original.

I didn’t find Nancy Palk’s Fool and connection to Lear as strong as it could have been especially in the moments in the hovel with the King and Poor Tom. Palk is a dynamite performer as I’ve seen her work on Soulpepper stages throughout the years and she was a force to be reckoned with. Here, though, I felt that the lifeline connection and bond between the King and his Fool faltered and was inconsistent. Hopefully, that re-connection can be found and re-established as performances continue.

Final Comments: The only other time I sat through a five-hour production was ‘Angels in America’ several years ago. I remembered how tired I was because I went through the gamut of emotions but seeing the continued ‘Angels’ story without interruption was an important journey.

I realize some may not be able to sit through the six hours and 15 minutes as I did.

But avail yourself of the opportunity to see both ‘Queen Goneril’ and ‘King Lear’. Once again, there is a gamut of emotions that one may experience, but it is worth the journey.

‘Queen Goneril’ runs approximately two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

‘King Lear’ runs approximately three hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and one pause.

Both play in repertory at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District and run to October 2. For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca. www.youngcentre.ca or call 1-416-866-8666.

‘Queen Goneril’ by Erin Shields and directed by Weyni Mengesha
‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare and directed by Kim Collier
Set Designer: Ken MacKenzie
Costume Designer: Judith Bowden
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Sound Designer & Composer: Thomas Ryder Payne
Performers: Damien Atkins, Helen Belay, Oliver Dennis, Sheldon Elter, Virgilia Griffith, Breton Lalama, Tom McCamus, Nancy Palk, Jordan Pettle, Philip Riccio, Vanessa Sears, Jonathon Young

Additional Performers in ‘King Lear’: Varun Guru, Annie Lujan, Shaquille Pottinger, Kiana Woo

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