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Jani Lauzon (left) and August Schellenberg in "King Lear" at the National Arts Centre

Peter Hinton's Algonquin-themed production of King Lear is one of those heartbreaking almost-triumphs that have marked his tenure as artistic director of the National Arts Centre's English Theatre.

On the one hand, Hinton's reading of the play through a 17th-century aboriginal Canadian lens does precisely what such shifting of Shakespeare should: Shine a new light on a text that is intimately known, finding new resonances in every dusty corner.

But this King Lear has a serious deficiency at its centre – and that is, alas, its Lear. August Schellenberg, the 75-year-old actor who has dreamt of this all-aboriginal production for 45 years, proves not up to the demands of the lead role.

Though Shakespeare's text is left intact, this Lear is an Algonquin chief who divides his land between his daughters – not by drawing lines on a map, but by tracing the contours of the landscape in the air with his hand. Goneril and Regan, who profess their love ostentatiously, get an equal share; Cordelia, refusing to reduce her love to flattery, gets nothing.

From the start, raging impotently against Cordelia, Schellenberg's Lear is missing a certain force. 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.

The cruel irony of Lear, it is said, is that by the time you are old enough to play it, you are too old to play it. In this case, it's clear that Schellenberg, a veteran of Stratford and Shaw who has acted on most major stages in Canada in his five decade career, simply struggled with the sheer size of the role; he stumbled frequently over his lines on opening night.

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.

In Hinton's staging, he holds a white feather to his daughter's mouth to see if she is alive instead of a looking-glass: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?" Brutal, but too little, too late; the journey is not there.

In the absence of a strong portrayal of what happens, as Lear's right-hand man Kent puts it, "when majesty falls to folly," the machinations of the bastard Edmund become the most involving portion of this production.

As his father Gloucester says, Edmund's mother was fair – and so, it makes sense in this context that he would be half-French and dress in colonial garb. (The production is beautifully designed by Gillian Gallow.).

Kevin Loring's slippery, understated Edmund has a strong sense of superiority that masks a self-consciousness about having a foot in two drastically different worlds, but fitting in neither. His violent hatred of his brother and father, and then his double dealing with Regan and Goneril, come across as a manifestation of a self-hatred of his Algonquin side – though Hinton's production assiduously avoids any heavy-handedness on the postcolonial politics.

It's Edmund, this "half-blooded fellow," who professes the strongest connection to nature; he claims he is doing her bidding with his evil plots. This is where the text of Lear comes into creative friction with the aboriginal setting: It's as if by dividing the land, the land has turned against Lear.

As opposed to in aboriginal culture, references to wild animals in Lear are never complimentary – his daughters are called serpents, wolves and vultures. The two actresses in these roles provide contrasts: Monique Mojica's Goneril is disdainful and aspires to elegance, while Tantoo Cardinal's Regan is earthy and casual in her cruelty.

Making her Shakespearean debut, Cardinal is fantastically natural. While others around her put on their best classical theatre airs, she brings flavour and colour to the part.

This is true too of Billy Merasty, who gives us a foolish Gloucester with great heart. It's in his and Cardinal's performances that an all-aboriginal production seems to find a raison d'être beyond the dressing. Elsewhere, I couldn't shake the feeling there was something mildly assimilationist, rather than empowering, about the exercise.

As Lear's fool, Jani Lauzon – who doubles as a gentle, and then oddly strident Cordelia – brings a manic trickster energy to the role that enlivens the storm scenes that, otherwise, play as silly and aimless. When she sings about the wind and the rain, the "hey ho" turns into a full "heya heya" chant.

Praise also must go to Craig Lauzon, as noble a Kent as you'll see, and a fierce warrior as well. (Before he goes into disguise, he is costumed as Lear's war chief.) I would like to see the Brutus he was once supposed to perform, but had to drop due to Royal Canadian Air Farce shooting conflicts. Who knew a talented classical actor hid behind the comic?

Ultimately, the all-aboriginal production sends decidedly mixed messages. At the same time that it proposes that Canada's aboriginal actors can do the classics exactly as well and in the same style as Canadian actors of any other background, it also argues that there is something special or distinct about a group of aboriginal actors doing Shakespeare.

And yet, there is something about this Lear that feels necessary. As the old king says, "O, reason not the need!"

On the whole, the cast Hinton has assembled is as good as you'll find outside of a company specifically devoted to the classics. But Lear needs a Lear.

King Lear continues at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until May 26.

King Lear

  • Written by William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Peter Hinton
  • Starring August Schellenberg
  • At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa
  • 2.5 stars

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