The Canadian Theatre Lear

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clare coulter as lear

In the Canadian Theatre I have often heard lamented that too few working within it have any sense of their own history- of the trails blazed by those who have come before them. Instead those just out of theatre school naively assume that they have come to destroy the “tired, static theatrical institutions of the older generations” using this experimental new wheel that they have just invented. I find this is often the case in Halifax, much more than I found it to be so in Toronto, so it is especially interesting that Philip McKee’s Lear, which premiered at the Harbourfront Centre’s HATCH Performing Arts Residency Program in Toronto, is playing here in Halifax until June 24th as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. 

This play is as much about Shakespeare’s story of the young daughters destroying the old Lear to usurp him for personal gain as it is about younger generations of theatre practitioners, like McKee, infringing on and invading the older, more seasoned performers, like Clare Coulter who plays Lear, driving them into the wings or out of the house for good, with their obsession for technology, youth, and a tunnel vision that sees only the 21st Century. The truth, of course, is that Coulter, who was born in 1942, worked with Theatre Passe Muraille in 1969 as the artists there were developing Canada’s iconic collective creation processes. Much of what younger theatre artists believe to be “cutting edge” and “avant garde” in the theatre now Coulter and her collaborators were experimenting with before we were born. This Lear is as much a tension between Lear and his daughters Goneril and Regan as it is a tension between 71 year old Coulter and 30 year old director Philip McKee. After all, in the program the play is presented as “Philip McKee’s Production of LEAR”- which does away completely with one much more archaic gentleman named William Shakespeare.

The play begins with Coulter’s Lear dividing up the kingdom (styrofoam cups) between three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The Kingdom, including the set that seems like a dingy rehearsal hall covered in garbage, is perhaps representative of the Canadian Theatre. The inheritance is humble and potentially just junk- but with imagination and prowess something incredible can be made of it. Goneril and Regan, played by Amy Nostbakken and Liz Peterson, flatter Lear to achieve the Kingdom, but they are false. How often do young actors flatter the most renowned older actors in their country’s theatre industry only to step on their heads as they climb over them on the ladder toward “success.” The more honest Cordelia, played by McKee himself, does not say the gushing accolades Lear wants to hear- yet speaks her own truth. Cordelia is cut out of the Kingdom.

Lear’s madness is a desire to keep playing- perhaps wanting to play the parts he has now outgrown and Coulter is dizzying and delightful in her dress up shenanigans that Goneril and Regan treat with utter scorn, hoping to embarrass and shame Lear off the stage and using his behaviour as proof that he has gone mad and they are within their right to dispose of him. Eventually the entire theatre, including the audience, will turn on Lear as well, take the spotlight away from Coulter and strip her (literally) of her ability to play any role- whitewashing her- covering her up as though her legacy in the Canadian Theatre need to be hidden so that Nostbakken and Peterson can have the stage to themselves (and perhaps go on to take credit for Coulter’s own accomplishments)

Of course, once Coulter is removed Nostbakken and Peterson now must turn on one another to compete for supremacy. The result is an excruciating and transfixing aerobics routine that the two sisters, and two actors, use in the hopes of destroying the other. Yet, highly symbolically, in the end we are left with Coulter and McKee, and it is Coulter-whose command of Shakespeare’s language, whose grace and presence command our attention and whose vulnerability shines despite all that has been done to degrade her. McKee is there to help, to support, but it is clear that it is he who is the shadow of HER Greatness. Hand in hand they walk offstage, suggesting that the way to bring a story to life in a new way is so often to bring the past and the present together with tension, but also, ultimately, with respect.

Lear plays at the Spatz Theatre (1855 Trollope Street) as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival and Eastern Front Theatre’s Stages Festival at the following times:

Sunday June 22: 4pm

Monday June 23: 7pm

Tuesday June 24: 7pm 

Tickets for all shows are available at TicketPro either by phone (1-888-311-9090) at TicketPro outlets in Halifax, at the show’s venue prior to the performance or online at this address.

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