Erin Shields isn’t afraid of giants. In her stage adaptations, the Canadian playwright has taken on the literary likes of Ovid (If We Were Birds, winner of the Governor-General’s Award for drama) and John Milton (Paradise Lost, a hit for the Stratford Festival) – and repeatedly left audiences admiring her own soaring language, taste for the theatrical and feisty feminist streak.
Shields, back in Toronto after spending the better part of a decade in Montreal, is now going toe-to-toe with the heaviest hitter of all: William Shakespeare. She’s premiering the “prequel” Queen Goneril this month, which is being presented in repertory with King Lear itself at Soulpepper in Toronto. Then, next summer, comes a collaboration with the Bard, her tweaked version of Much Ado About Nothing set for the main stage at Stratford Festival in 2023.
Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck spoke with the playwright about what she jokingly calls her “Shakespeare period.”
Your new play inspired by King Lear is being presented in repertory with King Lear itself. How does it feel to be basically put up against Shakespeare like that?
I feel both terrified and also really excited. My play is in some ways a prequel, but the point isn’t really to explain why the characters do the things they do; it’s in some ways a shadow play. There are reflections of Lear, and some of the plot points run parallel. It’s challenging the authority of the original, in the sense that my play centres the characters that don’t get a lot of stage time in King Lear.
It makes me think of companies putting on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in rep with Hamlet. What’s the process been like?
Usually when I’m doing this kind of thing, I am the expert in the original text. Over these past two months, the cast have become experts in King Lear because they’re playing the same roles in both plays. So it’s been really fun to be able to go deeper into conversations in the rehearsal hall with the actors and the other people in the creative team.
There’s a great tradition of writing in response to Shakespeare in Canadian theatre – and, I guess, all over the place.
I’ve been in love with Shakespeare, like many theatre practitioners, for a very, very long time. I saw my first Stratford play when I was 11: Seana McKenna and Brian Bedford in The Merchant of Venice. I was just drawn to the characters, the stories, the poetry, the way it’s almost like a puzzle and if you let the words come to you, you can figure it out even if you’re not an expert.
But, then, a few years ago I started working on a play for Repercussion Theatre in Montreal about all of Shakespeare’s women – and became more and more frustrated with the reality that Shakespeare was writing in a time when women were literally not allowed to perform on stage. And so the repercussions of that are that there are three women to 20 men in every play. What’s the cost of that to female performers, on audience members, when Shakespeare’s our most produced playwright?
What was your initial inspiration for wanting to explore, in particular, Lear.
I think that, at the moment anyway, it’s considered to be his greatest play, so I like that idea of going for the biggest one. The women in this play get treated particularly harshly. Goneril and Regan end up being evil and Cordelia is a saint, and that’s the end of it. They have about 16 per cent of the total text of the play. So I started thinking what if Goneril had a storm? What if she got to grapple with an existential crisis?
Do we get to learn anything about King Lear’s wife in Queen Goneril? There’s only, what, one reference to her in the original play, right?
Yeah, she’s very absent. She’s still dead in my play but she’s very much present for the sisters and the father throughout. We get a bit of a sense of who she was, but more for what her death has done to all of them. They’ve all been grieving her. In Shakespeare, there’s not a lot of mothers, right?
I hadn’t really thought much about the absence of mothers. I guess they’re dead, they turn into statues and come back to life, or it’s like in Hamlet –
Yeah, there’s Gertrude who’s not a great mother. Lady Capulet, again, not a great mother. Few and far between. What this tends to do for young protagonists is that it forces them, as in fairy tales, to act; they have to go out in the world and do things because they there’s a lack of guidance.
In addition to Queen Goneril and the pandemic-delayed Thy Woman’s Weeds for Repercussion, you have written new bits for Much Ado About Nothing, for a production to be directed by Chris Abraham at Stratford.
Yeah, this is my Shakespeare phase. I wrote a prologue for Beatrice and I wrote a short scene in the final act, when Hero “comes back to life” and all the men are calling her a whore. Chris challenged me to write seamlessly into the scene, like Shakespeare. I was like, “Yeah, no problem.” And then I got into it and ... trying to write relatively short scenes, work with the verse, create meaning, write in the characters’ voices, find metaphors and wordplay? Oh my God, you get a new appreciation for just how masterful he is, really.
As for Queen Goneril, what is the writing style? How did you decide to have these characters speak?
Like a lot of my other work I’m sort of trying to play with elasticity of the language – between Shakespeare’s register and our contemporary, colloquial register. There are moments where it feels very naturalistic and, in some ways, anachronistic. Then, in moments of heightened emotion, they get into more of that Shakespearean register.
Your Lear is played by Tom McCamus, who’s a white man, and then the three sisters are played by a trio of Black actors: Virgilia Griffith, Vanessa Sears and Helen Belay. We’re used to any type of casting in Shakespeare, but when you’re writing a new play like this, how much were you aware that that’s what the casting was going to be, and how much are you writing for them to be represented in this way?
I was part of the casting process. The status quo at the moment for doing Shakespeare is a quote unquote colour-blind approach where you have directors try to cast to reflect the diversity of our society, but they don’t think about who’s playing what role. When people started doing that initially, it was groundbreaking, but now it’s pretty standard – and what that does to an audience is, it says, okay, well, race doesn’t matter in this world. In my play, we’ve talked a lot about it – and we know, in our world, race does matter. So the fact that they’re Black is in the text. The great thing about theatre is you have actors who imprint and inform the text as you rehearse it and ask questions. Virgilia and Vanessa and Helen – and director Weyni Mengesha – have been very supportive and helpful in helping me hone that particular aspect of the play.
Michael Healey once said to me it’s “adapt or die” for Canadian playwrights because if you want to get programmed, especially on the bigger stages, you have to. There’s such a strong Erin Shields voice to your work – but do you ever feel self-conscious about the fact that so many of your plays are connected to other works?
I don’t feel self conscious. I feel like, at the moment anyway, I’m still a bit obsessed with adapting these canonical works – and the older and mustier they are, the more freedom you have. There is something true about the name of something drawing an audience, never mind getting yourself programmed. It can be a bit of a Trojan Horse, you know. You can really take them on a journey into whatever you want.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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