REVIEW: King Lear at Soulpepper

From the first episode of HBO phenomenon Succession, references to Shakespeare’s King Lear leap from the screen. An aging, tyrannical, powerful father; three emotionally starved yet power-hungry children; a kingdom (well, company) reckoning with a leader who can no longer care. As the show progresses, audiences grow to expect Lear-isms.

What’s equally fun, at least as far as I’m concerned, is Succession-isms cropping up in a local production of King Lear.

Director Kim Collier has coaxed out stunning, complicated performances from a tremendous corps of actors, and allusions to HBO’s golden child of a show ground the drama in contemporary, tangible stakes. Yes, the production’s long — opening night, including its two intermissions, wound down just before the four-hour mark — but the work is gripping, surprising, funny, and devastating. It’s superb. Played in repertory with Erin Shields’ Queen Goneril, a prequel, this King Lear is one not to be missed.

Tom McCamus’ Lear is perfect, and eerily echoes Brian Cox’s Logan Roy in both physical composure and his erratic style of speaking. Madness and grief intertwine in McCamus’ speech and body — the role suits him well. Shakespeare’s text has been left untouched here (Queen Goneril is more of a remix of the Bard’s words), but McCamus almost seems ready to erupt in a Roy-ish “f*** off” at a moment’s notice. McCamus zeroes in on amusing lines — his crucial “nothing will come of nothing” bleeds entitlement, pain, and sarcasm all at once — and his energy never falters over the course of the play. 

Lear’s daughters — Vanessa Sears as Regan, Virgila Griffith as Goneril, and Helen Belay as Cordelia — are well cast and well calibrated, though I do wish we were afforded a touch more of Belay, who disappears for nearly seventy percent of the play after a lovely first scene. It’s not uncommon in other productions for Cordelia to reappear as the Fool, the King’s cheeky consigliere: we see shades of that impishness from Belay in Queen Goneril, but I wished for that doubling here, too, despite a lovely performance here from Nancy Palk as the Fool. Sears is a firecracker onstage, magnetic and offering Regan a dangerous, intoxicating edge. Griffith is a strong Goneril, appropriately caustic and callous — so it’s wonderful we get a glimpse into her subtler sides in Queen Goneril, which provides a rich backstory to the sister who should have been Lear’s obvious heir.

Regan and Goneril are complemented by fittingly awful husbands, Jordan Pettle’s Albany and Philip Riccio’s Cornwall. Riccio (who is the publisher of Intermission) in particular soars in his role, embracing murderous high drama and nimbly traversing Cornwall’s treacherous arc. Pettle too, is fantastic, appropriately nimble and emotionally nuanced, and both men foster alluring chemistry with their respective onstage wives. Rounding out the production is a noble group of detailed, rigorous performances from Sheldon Elter as Kent, Jonathon Young as Edmund, Oliver Dennis as Gloucester, Breton Lalama as Oswald, Damien Atkins as Edgar, and Palk as the Fool.

Collier’s well paced, startlingly snappy production straddles eras, with costume and set choices (by Judith Bowden and Ken MacKenzie, respectively) rooted firmly in contemporary styles — fabulous fur coats meet trailing skirts and fitted sport jackets and ties, but ancient-looking architecture looms over these clothes, positing a fascinating dialogue between eras. The juxtaposition is striking, functioning such that anachronisms direct focus to unexpected characters and moments — Goneril’s sparkly pants with the word “queen” written on them speak fabulous volumes, in particular. Bowden’s costume design, along with MacKenzie’s modular set (used similarly in both Lear and Queen Goneril) and Kimberly Purtell’s gothic lights, perfectly evoke royal malaise and futility, and Thomas Ryder Payne’s music and sound further heighten Lear’s air of tectonic political shift.

See Soulpepper’s Lear. Do it. Go. Be not alarmed by its four-hour run, its un-updated text — this is one of the most fiercely contemporary things I’ve seen this year, and easily in my top three productions since #theaTO began its return in March. Succession fans need not wait for season four next year: you’ve essentially got it right here.

King Lear runs at Soulpepper Theatre Company through October 1. Tickets are available here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is former president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.