May 13, 2012

Schellenberg's King Lear reviewed

All-Aboriginal King Lear doesn’t quite work

By Patrick LangstonWilliam Shakespeare’s King Lear is a magnificent, wrenching tragedy about an aging monarch who ignites political and personal chaos by dividing his kingdom between his daughters.

Alas, the much-anticipated, all-Aboriginal production of Lear at the NAC, like the old king’s hope for a few burden-free final years as he crawls toward death, falls far short of the mark.

Director Peter Hinton has set the story in 17th century Canada, the period of first contact between Europeans and First Nations people. The context is meant to evoke issues of conflict, identity and, for good or ill, construction of a new social order rather than being a strict analogy between the world of Shakespeare’s Lear, itself about ancient Britain, and that of long-ago Canada.
And:Problem is, Schellenberg as Lear muffs a lot of lines. More to the point, he rarely sparks our awe or pity; on the weather-battered heath, one of the great scenes in English drama, he seems intent only on getting through the text as quickly as possible.

Hard to know where to lay the blame for the slender emotional resonance: on the actor, who just can’t rise to the occasion, or on the director who introduces a lot of ritual into the production, presumably because of his First Nations interpretation, but without allying it to heartfelt fervour.

But it doesn’t really matter: a King Lear without resonance isn’t much of a King Lear.
‘You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,’ said King Lear. But the audience needs strength

By J. Kelly NestruckPeter 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.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see August Schellenberg as King Lear and King Lear as The Last of the Mohicans.

Below:  "Jani Lauzon, playing the part of the Fool, interacts with King Lear, played by August Schellenberg, in the NAC production of the Canadian aboriginal version of Shakespeare's King Lear." (Wayne Cuddington/The Ottawa Citizen)

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