In a school year that began with UMF’s Native American Film and Performance Forum and ended with the UMF-hosted Shakespeare in Performance conference, it seemed like a particularly apt moment of serendipity to discover that a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear with an all aboriginal cast was being staged at Canada’s National Arts Center in Ottawa in May.
Directed by Peter Hinton, and starring August Schellenberg (Mohawk; whose idea it was, some 45 years ago, that Lear would be particularly adaptable to an indigenous /First Nations setting) as Lear, the play placed Shakespeare’s drama in 17th-century Canada, amongst a group of Algonquin people.
And for someone who is a fan of indigenous film, the play was a fabulous opportunity to see several of my favorite actors live and onstage, including a pair of actors that anyone who knows the film Smoke Signals will recognize, Tantoo Cardinal (Métis/Cree; Victor’s mother in Smoke Signals) and Monique Mojica (Guna and Rappahannock; Thomas Build-the-Fire’s grandmother in Smoke Signals) as Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril. Lorne Cardinal (Cree), who I know for his work in the television series Corner Gas (where he is very funny) and Arctic Air (where, as the heavy, he is just the opposite of funny), played the Duke of Albany. Billy Merasty (Cree), who starred in one of my favorite films, Shelley Niro’s Honey Moccasin, played the Earl of Gloucester. Additionally, there were several other standout performers in the production, Jani Lauzon (Métis), who doubled as Cordelia and the Fool; Kevin Loring (N’lakap’mux) as Edmund; and Gordon Patrick White (Mi’kmaq) as Edgar.
In the talk back after the performance, Billy Merasty observed that the cast had “had a lot of conversations about how to indigenize” the play, to make it not just a play with First Nations actors playing English characters, but to find a way to bring an aboriginal perspective to the material—to make the play work in a 17-century Algonquin context—in a more meaningful way than simply dressing the actors in leathers and feathers. One of the interesting elements of the production was the thoughtful way the cast and crew approached that problem throughout.
Most indigenous cultures in the “new world” did not share western culture’s gender hierarchies. Men and women shared power (much to the confusion of the English in particular, who had a difficult time recognizing women in power), and that dynamic works quite well with King Lear, which (as this production made clear) can be focused quite easily on two women, Regan and Goneril, as they take the land and the power that once belonged to Lear. Western gender hierarchy is definitely easy to see in the recent touring production of the play (starring Ian McKellen as Lear and filmed for television in 2008). When actors are on stage, we see men everywhere. Lear is surrounded by soldiers, for example, in the opening scene, and the stage is filled with male extras in most subsequent scenes. The Canadian Lear emphasized a gender balance onstage. Most of the extras, the members of the court as well as Lear’s followers, were members of the Four Nations Exchange, a workshop the production sponsored with the local Aboriginal community (mostly Anishinaabeg), and they were a group that was evenly divided by gender. Whenever Regan and Goneril were onstage, they were placed in ways that made them the center of the action and the central focus for the audience. When Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out (spoiler alert!), Regan does not stand by and watch while her husband does the dirty work—she actively participates in the act of blinding.
The doubling of Cordelia and the Fool (both played by actress Jani Lauzon) also contributed to the sense that this was very much a woman-centered play. The doubling of those roles has been done occasionally, and it seemed to work particularly well, as there are a number of moments in the play that suggest a relationship between the two (not the least of which is that they both die by hanging). Also, the portrayal of the Fool drew from both indigenous trickster traditions and English theater. The costume evoked the motley worn by the traditional jester, although the materials (fringes, beadwork, part of a British flag) drew from both cultures. The Fool’s coxcomb suggested Coyote’s ears, and Lauzon’s performance involved stylized head movements that similarly suggested a coyote.
Jani Lauzon and August Schellenberg (reproduced from The Ottawa Citizen website; photographer Wayne Cuddingham).
In the talk back, Kevin Loring talked about the development of his character, Edmund, the scheming bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester. He alone was costumed in European dress, his weapon a sword (and he is killed by Edgar, ironically and aptly, by that sword). At the beginning of the play, Gloucester observes of Edmund, “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again.” Building on the line, Loring developed Edmund as a mixed-blood character, his nine-year absence imagined as having been in the colonies with his European mother. There’s further textual support for that reading in the Duke of Albany’s reference to Edmund as a “Half-blooded fellow” (V.iii). The thoughtful development of Edmund’s character (and the subsequent costuming to suggest that back story) is another example of the way the production realized the 17th century Algonquin context, with a group of people still on the outer edge of European contact, but nonetheless beginning to feel its effects.
Props also contributed to realizing the setting—including a nifty canoe that glided across the stage as smoothly as if across calm water. For the ubiquitous letters that go back and forth throughout the play (and that contribute to the various schemes and misunderstandings), the production approriately substituted birchback scrolls. When the Earl of Gloucester tells Edgar “Here, friend’s, another purse; in it a jewel / Well worth a poor man’s taking,” he accompanies his words with the medicine bag/pouch he wears around his neck.
In western culture, comedy and tragedy are traditionally regarded as distinct genres. My sense, based on various readings and conversations over the past year or so, is that indigenous cultures do not have that same tradition—and that indigenous texts are more likely to include a mixture of humor and sadness. That emphasis on including humor in all types of stories may have contributed to the emphasis on humor in this production of King Lear (during the talkback, Jani Lauzon’s first comment to the audience was “thanks for laughing”). Given the tragic and even horrific (the blinding of Gloucester) events in Lear, the play text itself seems to suggest a lot of humor (or at least to be available for humorous readings). The Fool is not the only foolish character in the play—the titular character being the foremost example, and Schellenberg’s Lear is at various times presented as foolish, comic, mad, sad, and tragic. Effectively balancing and juxtaposing these different tones and emotions was one of the achievements of the production, realized in particular by Billy Merasty’s performance as the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester is a character who first appears to us as comic. When Kent responds to Gloucester’s statement about his bastard son (“His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge.”) with a puzzled “I cannot conceive you,” Gloucester’s witty response is “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could.” Gloucester’s foolish disregard for his illegitimate son (other than to note that “there was good sport at his making”) contributes to Edmund’s motivation to bring down his half-brother Edgar and to ally himself with Regan and Goneril against Lear and against his own father. However, when the sisters reject Lear and force him to spend the night exposed to the storm, Gloucester is the sole character to object to this inhumane treatment. When he is blinded on stage (punishment for his treasonous loyalty to Lear), it’s the most horrific moment in the play, and he emerges as a pitiable if not tragic figure.
What happens next is that Gloucester decides to commit suicide by throwing himself off the cliffs of Dover, aided (unbeknownst to him) by his legitimate son Edmund (in disguise), who tricks him (for his own good) into thinking that he stands atop the cliffs. When Gloucester survives his fall, Edmund uses this as a sign to convince him to continue to live. Different productions of Lear stage this scene in vastly different ways (the 2008 production plays it very seriously). The Ottawa production emphasizes the humor of the scene. Gloucester crouches lower and lower until he is almost on the ground anyway, and then tips over the rest of the way and promptly passes out. He remains face down on the stage throughout Edmund’s speech, and when Edmund finally rouses him, his “Away, and let me die,” is delivered from the same position without moving, and the effect (combined with the actor’s reading of that line) is very funny. One of the highlights of the play was Merasty’s ability to make the jumps in tone associated with his character work so effectively.
Reviews of the play that I have read have been mixed, with the most accurate being J. Kelly Nestruck’s review in The Globe and Mail, in which he describes the play as an “almost triumph” (and I would drop the almost from that). The title of the review “A King Lear in Need of a King” suggests the central criticism, a dissatisfaction with Schellenberger’s performance as Lear, while most of the rest of play receives high praise (including the brilliant costuming and set design, which I haven’t even had a chance to mention). That review title suggests that this was King Lear without a Lear, and that is partially right, although not in the way the reviewer means it. At least, this was King Lear presented as an ensemble and not centered on the title character. Whether as a consequence of editing or staging, I’m not sure, but characters such as Regan, Goneril, Edgar, Edmund, Kent, and Gloucester seemed to receive as much emphasis as Lear himself. In the talkback, Schellenberg noted the physical demands of playing Lear and that he was the oldest actor to have attempted the role, so there may have been some editing of the part to accommodate the actor’s age. Also, Tantoo Cardinal, in her first Shakespeare production, was so dynamic in the role of Regan that the director may have chosen to give more emphasis to her character. Whatever the case may be, the production felt like an ensemble piece, and that may have been quite different from some audience members’ expectations of what a production of King Lear should be.
Also, I saw the play in the second week of production, and did not see Schellenberg flubbing or stumbling over lines (as reviewers who saw the opening night reported), so I may have a seen a stronger and more assured performance by Schellenberg than the reviewers did.
Nonetheless, I think the reviewers missed the point in a couple of cases. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Patrick Langston in “All-Aboriginal Lear Doesn’t Quite Work” observed that Schellenberg “rarely sparks our awe or pity; on the weather-battered heath, one of the great scenes in English drama, he seems intent only on getting through the text as quickly as possible.” He also suggests that the “First Nations interpretation” gets in the way of “heartfelt fervour.” On the night I attended the play, the audience indicated quite a bit of heartfelt fervour for the production, and I suspect that the reviewer didn’t quite get what was going on with the production and with what he referred to as the introduction “of a lot of ritual into the production.”
The “Blow, wind” scene on the heath was for me one of the standout moments of the production—a very original interpretation of this famous scene. Lear is encircled onstage by his enemies, and while we hear the sound effects of the storm, the actors stare in at Lear as they simulatenously strike handheld drums. This is a visually and aurally awesome moment in the play, and it surprises me that the reviewers failed to mention this element of the staging of this scene. Granted, Schellenberg’s delivery is fast-paced here, but the effect created by the staging is that Lear is speaking to a rhythm set by his enemy, that he is as propelled through that speech as he is driven by the ferocity of the storm. He is no longer in control of his kingdom, his destiny, his own mind, or even the pace of his own words.
In what is otherwise an accurate and observant review of the play, Nestruck writes of Schellenberg’s Lear that “He’s a puny, human-sized king – which would not necessarily be a terrible choice, except Schellenberg is clearly aiming for a larger Lear and falling short,” noting that “Only late in the play, do we get a taste of what Schellenberg on top of his game might be capable of in Lear’s marvellously poignant reunion with Cordelia, and again, walking on stage cradling her lifeless body.” Again, my sense of what the production was trying to accomplish differs here. I’m not so sure that Schellenberg was “clearly aiming for a larger Lear.” As with the Earl of Gloucester, we have a multifaceted Lear, one who is indeed at times “human-sized,” who at times behaves foolishly, at other times majestically, and whose folly is often presented to us through humor and humorous scenes (including a marvellous moment where we see at the back of the stage a gleeful Lear being chased by two of his followers while two other characters are conversing at the front of the stage). That he saves the character’s most affecting moments until the end doesn’t seem counter to the story itself. In some ways, that seems a reasonable interpretation of this character—that it is only in the discovery of the death of his daughter that he has realized the full tragedy of his folly. That he comes to this recognition only in the final moments of the play is part of the tragedy.