For August Schellenberg, starring in the National Arts Centre's all-aboriginal production of King Lear is a dream more than four decades in the making.
The actor, who is of Mohawk descent, first conceived the idea for an aboriginal Lear in the fall of 1967, when, after an acclaimed season at the Stratford Festival, he was in Vancouver performing in the premiere of George Ryga's seminal Canadian play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
The late director John Juliani remarked to Schellenberg that his Rita Joe co-star Chief Dan George would make a great Lear – and Schellenberg immediately begin to imagine the play with an entire cast of native actors. "From that point on, I believed that an all-aboriginal production of Lear would happen some day," says the actor, who, at 75, is a Stratford and Shaw Festival veteran, and has acted onscreen opposite Peter O'Toole, Vanessa Redgrave and Len Cariou.
That day has now come, although the question remains whether the NAC's King Lear will be a breakthrough moment for aboriginal actors in this country, as Schellenberg hopes, or a one-off event.
For decades, Schellenberg was told there simply weren't enough working aboriginal actors to pull off the Lear of his dreams. In 2012, however, director Peter Hinton has been able to assemble not just an all-aboriginal but an all-star team to bring Shakespeare's greatest tragedy to life.
Sharing the stage with Schellenberg are such well-known names as Order of Canada member Tantoo Cardinal, making her Shakespearean debut as Regan; Corner Gas's Lorne Cardinal as Albany; and the Royal Canadian Air Farce's Craig Lauzon as Kent. "There weren't just 13 capable people – they were able to choose 13 from a larger group that could have easily done the piece," notes Lauzon.
This King Lear is also a fitting end to Hinton's seven-year tenure as artistic director at the NAC's English theatre, a period in which he has demonstrated equal devotion to Shakespeare and to aboriginal and first-nations theatre.
When he started thinking about the project two years ago, Hinton planned to set his Lear in the Algonquin nation, around the area that is now Ottawa, in 1608, the year the play was first published. Over the course of rehearsals, however, the time period has gradually moved to later in the 17th-century to more fully show the impact of colonization and first contact.
"For a Jacobean audience, Shakespeare wrote a play about the formations of his own country, of ancient Britain," says Hinton. "For a 21st-century audience in Canada, it [can]have a similar dynamic and resonance looking at our own history."
Shakespeare's tragedy – Hinton describes it as a play about "governance, the division of land, and the measurement of land to love" – begins with an elderly king about to divide his realm between his three daughters. "In our story, the idea of dividing land has never been done before, because we were all a part of the land," notes Lorne Cardinal, who in addition to playing Albany is assistant-directing, and has been documenting the rehearsals for a film.
The 17th-century Algonquin setting has also allowed Tantoo Cardinal to find a new psychological basis for the seemingly inexplicable cruelty of Regan, who drives her elderly father out into the play's famous storm. Here, Lear's daughters are perhaps understandably resentful of living in a society in which the power relations between men and women have been altered by contact with Europeans, who refuse to negotiate or even speak with women leaders.
"Colonialism has flipped the turtle on its back, and things don't sit right," says the actress. "People do crazy things – there's fear and abuse – when things are out of balance."
While Shakespeare's plays are regularly relocated to Edwardian England, contemporary Italy or postmodern fantasy lands, Canadian directors have been strangely reluctant to set them in Canada – let alone aboriginal Canada.
There are, however, a handful of precedents: In 1961, director David Gardner toured what was billed an "Eskimo Lear," in which the king wandered into a snowstorm and "Poor Tom" was genuinely cold. Lewis Baumander and Robert Lepage have staged first-contact-themed versions of The Tempest in outdoor theatres in Toronto and Quebec City, respectively.
The decision not only to place King Lear in an aboriginal setting but to cast it exclusively with native actors goes beyond aesthetics, however. Schellenberg speaks about "prov[ing]to all that we as native actors are capable of doing the classics," a goal echoed by others in the cast.
Lorne Cardinal, for one, is peeved that he has never been able even to get an audition at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – and believes for a long time a racist perception that aboriginal actors "can't handle the text" has kept them from being cast in classical productions. "Now," he says, "we get this chance to master this language – well, I say, master the language of the oppressors – and show that we are equal in skill and talent."
That sets expectations awfully high for a production in which, for all the accomplished actors in the cast, about half have little or no previous experience performing Shakespeare. Hinton admits that there is a virtuosic element to the Bard that can be improved with training and experience. "But the gist of all the Shakespeare plays is the ability to think precisely, and to think feelingly, and to emote and feel passionately with great discipline," he says. "Here we have a great freshness, a great newness to it, which I think gives it energy and reconsideration."
While native actors have not been afforded many opportunities to perform Shakespeare in Canada, they also haven't always embraced the playwright themselves – and aboriginal art has often been created to offer an express alternative to the dead white males of the Western canon. As playwright Tomson Highway once told an interviewer, "As a result of the birth of native literature … [students]actually have something to read besides Charles Dickens and William Faulkner, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare."
Over the past decade and a half, though, as the nature of identify politics has shifted, Shakespeare has increasingly been embraced by aboriginal peoples around the world. According to the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project, the world's first professional all-indigenous production of a Shakespeare play took place only in 1997: A Midsummer Night's Dream in Sydney, Australia.
Here in Canada, Toronto's Native Earth Performing Arts performed a version of Julius Caesar, called Death of a Chief, that toured to the NAC in 2008. And just last week, the World Shakespeare Festival in London opened with a New Zealand production of Troilus and Cressida performed in Maori.
Such productions are still rare enough, however, that cast members of the NAC's King Lear feel an added pressure to succeed as they get showcased on one of the most prominent stages in the country. "You can feel the weight of all that – oh my God, this better be good," says Lauzon, who imagines that there will be some theatregoers questioning the point of an aboriginal Lear. "The worst possible thing would be for them to be going, 'We told you so.' "
The National Arts Centre's production of King Lear runs in Ottawa from May 8 to 26.