Want to know how to direct a classic play in the style of 21st-century, avant-garde world theatre? Philip McKee provides a step-by-step guide with his Lear at the World Stage festival.
1. Forget the playwright. While waiting to enter the Studio Theatre at Harbourfront Centre, I scoured the eight-page program for Shakespeare’s name. He is not mentioned even once.
2. Limit the audience. A mere 33 tickets a night are available for Lear’s short run, making it a tougher ticket to get than The Book of Mormon.
3. Inhibit the audience’s field of vision. Upon entering the Studio Theatre, the red curtains are parted slightly, exposing only a tall, thin rectangle of stage through which Clare Coulter’s paper-crown-wearing Lear peeks, cheekily.
4. Cast against character. Coulter, an icon of 1970s “alternative” theatre now in her 70s, plays Lear – and as a king, not a queen. Employing a flat, no-nonsense As It Happens accent, she creates a crisp Canadian sense of imperiousness as she divides the kingdom in the first scene – repeated four times, with increasing alarm at Cordelia’s refusal to flatter.
5. Send the costume designer to American Apparel. Cordelia, played by a sensitive, ponytailed Lindsey Clark is in an off-white hoodie. Liz Peterson’s furious Goneril and Amy Nostbakken goofier Regan both look headed for a hipster yoga studio, their outfits a direct affront to the creators of tightsarenotpants.com.
6. Use hand-held mikes. As Goneril and Regan debate exactly how many attendants Lear really needs, they walk through the audience with microphones like a pair of smarmy Jerry Springers.
7. Put the audience on the stage. As Lear huffs out onto the heath, spectators are invited to watch the rest from chairs on the stage. The storm turns society upside down, why not the theatre too?
8. Make a mess. Instead of stripping as he goes mad, Coulter’s Lear stands still as a statue behind a pair of sharp scissors. The other performers take turns slicing off pieces of her costume until she is left standing in her undergarments – as in Yoko Ono’s classic 1964 performance Cut Piece. Then, the storm is symbolized, simply, by Coulter slathering her face and body in white paint – a trick borrowed from Quebec director Wajdi Mouawad and German director Thomas Ostermeier.
9. Push performers to their physical limits. The rivalry between Goneril and Regan is distilled into a single, high-impact aerobics routine. To sounds recorded earlier in the show layered over electronic beats, they repeat a series of movements Lear enacted in the first scene, over and over, faster and faster, until Peterson and Nostbakken collapse, out of breath.
10. Above all, keep it short. None of this sounds up your alley? Don’t worry – not only is the story reduced to its basic brushstrokes, characters are collapsed upon each other: Coulter’s Lear contains Gloucester and the Fool, Cordelia encompasses Kent. It’s all over in about 80 minutes.
Voila. New forms of theatre have their tropes just as the old forms of theatre do; what’s experimental today are tomorrow’s clichés.
While all productions of King Lear are about the troubles in passing the theatrical baton to a certain extent, McKee simply foregrounds that aspect – and, in the entertaining and surprising touching result, ultimately seems to question the generation gap.
In his final image of reconciliation between Clark’s Cordelia and Coulter’s Lear, the 30-year-old director not only steals a page from the happy-ending versions of Shakespeare’s play that ruled from the Restoration until the early 19th century, but offers a touching glimmer of hope amid the storms brewing between Generation Y and baby boomers in all corners of Canadian society. Maybe we can learn from one another, and lean on one another, and not destroy the kingdom.