Gender-bending King Lear shines in leafy High Park production
When it comes to Shakespearean roles, there are a few that every classical actor dreams of playing, such as Prince Hamlet, King Macbeth and King Lear — the starring roles in plays most of us read in high school.
The issue is that these roles are all written for men — a problem that actually worsened in western theatre after Shakespeare, with so few 19th- and 20th-century playwrights writing substantial roles for women.
But a recent trend in casting and interpreting classical work is seeing the best stage roles reimagined as gender neutral.
This spring, Toronto’s Why Not Theatre produced its Prince Hamlet adaptation with actors Christine Horne, Maria Vacratis and Dawn Jani Birley (who is a deaf performer) in the key roles of Hamlet, Polonius and Horatio respectively.
And last summer, Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Withrow Park also featured gender-neutral roles, with Vivien Endicott-Douglas playing a gender-fluid Romeo.
Reinterpretations such as these can mean female stage actors actually have roles available to them when so few are written for middleaged and older women especially.
This can be a boon for audiences, who can witness great performances and interesting interpretations, so long as they’re open-minded enough not to get hung up on the original gender of roles.
That’s very much the case at Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park production of King Lear, with Diane D’Aquila, a Stratford Festival veteran, as the mad king, now queen. D’Aquila imbues the complex Lear with imperious authority and arrogance early in the play, righteous fury that turns to unbridled mental turmoil — as her queen is usurped by her scheming older daughters Goneril (Naomi Wright) and Regan (Hannah Wayne-Phillips) — and pathos as she begins to view the world through different eyes.
D’Aquila’s Lear is accompanied by Jenni Burke as the faithful Countess of Kent, a role traditionally reserved for a robust leading man type.
The show isn’t a complete triumph, but a production of King Lear hinges on the title role, and D’Aquila is terrific; when she raged in her storm scene, a sudden sustained gust of wind blew through the amphitheatre, in a pique of pathetic fallacy.
We’ll be back again to see Twelfth Night, which plays in repertory with King Lear, in part to see Amelia Sargisson, so good in her brief stage time as loyal princess Cordelia, in the plum role of Viola. Shakespeare in High Park runs until Sept. 3.
L–R: Amelia Sargisson and Diane D’Aquila in ‘King Lear’