Theatre Review: Magnetic North: Lear

Image: Guntar Kravis

Image: Guntar Kravis


Philip McKee | Toronto ON | Magnetic North 2014, Halifax
June 21-24 | Spatz Theatre Atrium

Philip McKee's Lear has gutted and skinned Shakespeare’s King Lear in its adaptation. What's left of the body, all muscle and bone, is still living and tragic. In fact, the play omits the deaths of the original entirely, while preserving the themes of shifting power, age, and inheritance. Lear uses the human body as an emotional shortcut to carry out these themes and peel away from Shakespeare's plot and dialogue.

The play opens with a recording between director, Philip McKee, and leading role, Clare Coulter. The dialogue sets up the frame work for a parallel plot. The young director, who plays Cordelia, represents a potential heir, a shift in power. Coulter, a seventy year old Canadian actress, plays King Lear. The fiery dialogue transitions into the famous first act; Lear declares the daughter that loves him the most will inherit the greater part of his kingdom. Goneril (Liz Peterson) and Regan (Amy Nostbakken) are quick to contend in flattery, while Cordelia, Lear's youngest and favourite daughter, refuses to take part. Lear leaves the stage distraught, Goneril and Regan now crowned, and Cordelia unaffected. The plot is set up for a bifold deconstruction, theatre about theatre. These are the bones.

Lear moves on with a series of deliberate cuts. Save for Lear himself, all the male characters of the original play have been dropped. This draws immediate attention to the cast, a single male actor to play Cordelia. The body takes place of dialogue. In an elaborate display, Lear trades his costume of pants and a crown for a floral print dress, clearly no longer in king's attire. The audience is re-seated on stage, representing a two-part shift in power. Lear has his dress snipped off by the younger cast members, and bare skin painted white by Goneril and Regan. The vulnerability of Lear's character, and Coulter as an aging female performer, comes across immediately. The line between actor and character isn't clear.

The younger female body is then put to test in an interpretive dance off performed by Peterson and Nostbakken. Both women have changed into cotton dresses, and compete for power until they have physically exhausted themselves. The audience, left to face an empty auditorium, considers a question akin the original play: who should rule now? Shakespeare limits the options by killing off half the cast, including Goneril, Cordelia, and Lear. In what appears to be an optimistic turn for the deconstruction, McKee's production ends with Lear left in the care of Cordelia. McKee, the only actor left wearing pants. Cordelia, a nearly absent character, represents the most rational heir. In parallel, McKee as director creates a place for Coulter within the contemporary theatre. But the space it creates is a box made of mirrors, and it isn't flattering at all angles.

McKee's production of Lear takes on the expected themes of King Lear: power, age, and inheritance. It directly parallels those themes of monarchy to new and old schools of theatre, and by keeping the entire cast alive, perhaps suggests a partnership between the two. Coulter's performance of Lear is striking and true. But the tragedy is in the ambiguous conclusion and not in hamartia. Even for the lack of death involved, this is a new kind of tragedy.