August Schellenberg (from NAC website)
Lear faces the storm at NAC
by Jim Murchison
It was with much anticipation that I went to see King Lear. Shakespeare is often performed in different settings in an effort to revitalize it or to make it more accessible. Sometimes the stretch is too large and it creates a chasm that alienates Shakespearean devotees and baffles newcomers to the classics. When I first learned that there would be a performance of an all aboriginal Lear set in 17th century Canada however, it was a concept that interested and excited me.
It started as a dream of Chief Dan George, John Juliani and August Schellenberg 45 years ago and recently brought by Mr Schellenberg to Peter Hinton. It would be an intimidating responsibility for anyone to take this on and Peter Hinton obviously has huge respect and great humility in being the person in charge of finally bringing it to the stage.
He has assembled an incredible design team. Starting with the set and costume design of Gillian Gallow. The set is functional and simple. The floor has ripples painted on it that could be earth or water. In fact people run across it , snowshoe over it and even canoe upon it. There are two large gated doors that separate the upstage world from the downstage one and a large birch tree rises out at an angle just left of centre stage. The costumes are wonderful as well and join elements of the cultures residing in Canada in the 17th century. Louise Guinand has beautifully lit the space. Often the stars or the aurora are backdrop to the colourful characters on stage, who spring out of shadows or stand in the bright lights as befits the mood. Allesandro Juliani has designed a soundscape that supports the ominous tragic components and grows out of the drum song that opens the play.
The star of Shakespeare should be the text and this cast probably speaks it as naturally and unforced as it can be performed. There is a balance to the cast that allows a complex tale to unfold and emotions and conceits to be laid bare and touch the audience. This is not to say that there were not minor gaffs, but the ease in which they were dealt with and the understanding that the actors have of the material made them amount to no more than a stutter. This is a wonderful cast though and I believe that the play will grow even stronger because the actors are listening to each other's voices. The discovery will continue and the play should remain fresh throughout the run and actually grow even more powerful.
Billy Merasty masterfully plays Earl Of Gloucester's naievety and trust, which makes the irony that he sees only after being blinded all the more potent. Kevin Loring is powerful as the bastard son Edmund. His deception springs out of a resentment seated in the centre of his gut, that you sense in his every step.
Lear's daughters of course are central to the conflict and again the casting is perfect. Monique Mojica as Goneril is a duplicitous self serving wretch of a daughter. Tantoo Cardinal as Regan is the same side of the coin with an extra edge of sardonic wit that adds a layer of humour to their treachery.
Jani Lauzon in the double role of Fool and Cordelia shows us her range. As Cordelia her pain at her father's rejection is terribly moving and as the Fool she has that wit and abandon that wryly points out how foolish we human beings really are.
August Schellenberg's Lear takes a journey from confident King, to hurt father and finally fumbles through the childish ramblings of dementia. He is the most human of Kings and his final realization that he has mistaken his trust because of his own vanity is heartfelt, heartwrenching and performed utterly truthfully.
It should be noted that in addition to the professional cast much of the sweeping, epic grandness of this production is provided by the participation of the Four Nations Exchange, a group made up of members of Ottawa's vibrant aboriginal community who play Lear's followers. Their participation feeds a great deal of energy and joy into this play, that helps bring the tragedy into a more profound focus.
I stayed after the show to listen to some of the comments in the salon at the reception. It has obviously been a great and exhausting journey for Peter Hinton but he has climbed the final mountain of his tenure at NAC and can be greatly proud of making it. It is clear that he is humbled and at times overwhelmed by the collaboration. This is a truly fitting ending to his artistic directorship embodying so much of his commitment, ideals and vision. It is nice to exit having made a dream into a reality in a way that honours the spirits of John Juliani and Chief Dan George.