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review

Helen Belay, Vanessa Sears, Virgilia Griffith, Nancy Palk and Breton Lalama form the cast of Soulpepper's Queen Goneril.DAHLIA KATZ/Soulpepper

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In the Soulpepper Theatre Company’s new Queen Goneril and King Lear double bill, William Shakespeare plays second fiddle – and it suits him nicely. The Bard comes across as less bottled up, is able to just relax and be his own weird, unwieldy, wordy self.

Programming a play by Shakespeare alongside a new one inspired by him is not, itself, a particularly groundbreaking idea.

The Stratford Festival, for instance, has two world premieres on its playbill this season that riff on Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well. (Hamlet-911 and 1939, respectively.) But, in the usual manner of such pairings, the new works are on in the Studio Theatre while the “real deal” have pride of place on the theatre company’s bigger stages.

The situation at Soulpepper is subtly different, befitting a once “classical” company that’s slowly become more and more “contemporary” over the past quarter century.

During the pandemic, Erin Shields, a Canadian playwright with a history of responding to old revered texts in ways ranging from the idiosyncratic to the iconoclastic, penned Queen Goneril – a drama that’s not quite a prequel to King Lear but is centred on his three daughters, maligned or sidelined by Shakespeare.

Soulpepper artistic director Weyni Mengesha decided to program (and direct) the premiere of Shields’s play this fall – and then, as she puts it in a program note, added King Lear in repertory with it in order to “deepen the experience of seeing Queen Goneril.”

That may seem cheeky, but it’s an accurate description of the experience of seeing these two productions, with the same actors playing different version of the same characters, one after another in the same day, as I did.

Set seven year before events of King Lear, Queen Goneril sees Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril (recent Dora Mavor Moore Award winner Virgilia Griffith) attempting to speed up succession plans that will see her take her father’s place on the throne.

Her reasoning is that Lear (Tom McCamus, leonine leading man at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for 40-odd years) is starting to make strange decisions that are undermining his grip on power. Most recently, the king has paid to transport the corpses of 300 soldiers who died on the battlefield on one of his imperial adventures back home – only to abandon them in a heap outside the castle because the ground was too frozen to bury them. Spring is coming and the bodies are beginning to, as Lear says in the other play, “smell of mortality.”

Goneril’s quest to give these men a proper funeral puts her in the lineage of another rebellious daughter of a king (Antigone), but there is ambition behind her actions, too. Her prioritization of appearances over authenticity or ethics is visible in the ways she attempts to fit in with Lear’s manly-man entourage (Sheldon Elter is a stand-out as a jocular Kent) – and an affair she conducts with a servant-woman named Olena (Breton Lalama) behind the back of her absent husband Albany (Jordan Pettle).

There’s something about Griffith’s strong strait-laced performance as Goneril that makes one think of Hillary Clinton at first; she’s more eager to have her turn, than overturn the established order.

Her younger sisters, meanwhile, are trying to navigate a patriarchal society in time-tested ways. Regan (Vanessa Sears) is forever flirting and playing the drama queen, undercutting Goneril’s efforts to be seen as serious, while Cordelia (Helen Belay) is never without a childlike smile on her face, a mask that allows her to be universally loved and completely unknown.

Also at the centre of Shields’s story – which has a couple of delicious plot twists – are a poker-faced servant named Old Woman, played with compelling inscrutability by Soulpepper founding company member Nancy Palk, and Olena, who, in the classic Shakespearean mode, puts on breeches to go into exile, but in this case finds their true character in disguise.

So how exactly do Goneril and Regan, merely flawed here, grow into the murderous monsters we know and hate so well from Shakespeare’s play? Shields builds her narrative, too, up to a storm – and the scenes leading up to it do help explain exactly why the two sisters will later be so unenthusiastic about having Lear partying with his bros in their households, at least.

But while Regan gets a great runway toward eye-gouging, it feels like a step was missing either in the writing or in Griffith’s performance to show us the foundation of Shakespeare’s sororicidal Goneril – or, and this is more of the issue, that Goneril is the one who finally breaks down and breaks the rules in Shields’s parallel universe.

Still, Queen Goneril stays credible and remains compelling to its conclusion – and, thankfully, has its own enjoyable in-between dramatic voice; nothing too mock-Shakespearean, but unafraid to sample and remix his words.

Nancy Palk and Tom McCamus star in Soulpepper's 2022 adaptation of King Lear.DAHLIA KATZ/Soulpepper

Siminovitch Prize-winning director Kim Collier’s production of King Lear, meanwhile, is really its own thing, despite a few knowing glances between characters that will only make sense if you see both shows.

It shares a common design, including two imposing arches designed by Ken MacKenzie that summon thoughts of Stonehenge, but not a connected vision.

While Queen Goneril is set in a fantasy past, King Lear is fully contemporary in its look – opening with McCamus’s Lear slapping shut a laptop set out on a table.

You can almost hear the piano theme song from Succession playing behind the early scenes, with its sound effects of private helicopters landing and taking off and the family sweeping on stage for a happy photo op.

Whatever upset Lear on the screen he slammed down, it quickly bleeds into his offline life. When he does not get the ostentatious love he wants from Cordelia, he gets very mad, and very loud. Collier’s production is, for better or for worse, often Shakespeare shouted as if by angry men chasing female politicians into elevators.

The director heavily emphasizes King Lear’s themes about vision – and how rage, even before internet disinformation came along, clouded one’s ability to see the world clearly.

Lear disowns Cordelia by saying “we/Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see/That face of hers again” – and casts away Kent, a kind of adopted son to him, with “Out of my sight!”

But the king already can’t see them – a metaphorical blindness underlined when Kent returns a few scenes later in the thinnest of disguises.

Collier complicates the audience’s own “vision” of this theatrical device by having Elter and other actors frequently slip into the background of crowd scenes or play minor secondary characters. When are we supposed to “recognize” Kent (or, in the show’s parallel plot, Damien Atkins’s Edgar, who becomes invisible to the powerful by pretending to be unhoused and unwell)?

As for Lear, when the king starts to actually “see” things clearly near the end of the play – when he is no longer angry, just mad – his vision becomes so crystalline that he can actually see the audience, and talks to us. McCamus is marvellous in these quieter moments, breaking the fourth wall and straddling the line between sardonic and sincere as only he can.

But the show truly belongs to Jonathon Young’s Edmund – the play’s troll-in-chief, a soft-spoken snake who here seems to be discovering his capacity for evil as he goes and is all the more charismatic for it.

King Lear’s flaws as a play are fully visible here – yeah, Goneril deserved her own play – but Collier must own the flaws of the production, its stylistic swerves and contrived insertion of cellphones and guns.

But the nice thing about seeing this Soulpepper double bill is it takes pressure off King Lear to be One of the Greatest Plays of All Time; it doesn’t even have to be the best play you see in a single day.

Queen Goneril continues to Oct. 2 and King Lear continues to Oct. 1 at Soulpepper in Toronto. COVID-19 measures: Some “COVID-conscious performances” at 50-per-cent capacity with masks required are available.