Feeling vs Unfeeling in King Lear

Alistair Newton’s production of King Lear starring Diane D’Aquila begins with two black doors swinging open as her throne moves downstage where she is joined by The Fool. She sits there looking small and groggy. The Fool opens the doors of a music box, resembling the ones onstage, to reveal a miniature of Queen Elizabeth I. As the music continues to play, the stage is bombarded with people to assist Lear getting dressed. Lear hangs there like a rag doll wearing a white nightdress while she is strapped into a corset and an overwhelmingly large black dress reminiscent of the mini Elizabeth. The idea of being trapped in a box or manipulated by others is quite clear.

Amelia Sargisson & Diane D'Aquila - Lear
Amelia Sargisson (Cordelia) and Diane D’Aquila (Lear)

It was a nice introduction to the world of a female Lear. Newton has stated several times how his inspiration for the production originated from imagining a Hillary Clinton presidency. Well, we all know how that turned out. But the idea of a female leader being in charge of a non-matriarchal world remains interesting. What does it mean to be a female leader? How do our ideas about masculinity coincide with our ideas about leadership – excluding more “female” qualities as acceptable for leadership? Throughout the American 2016 election, it was continuously claimed Clinton would be “too emotional” to lead because she was a woman. I may not like associating being emotional with being female but the world certainly has no problem with it. Emotions are both gendered and political.

Newton and D’Aquila give the audience a Lear where she is forced to adopt a “masculine” lack of feeling in order to survive as leader (which is a quality later reflected in her own daughters Goneril and Reagan). The daughters want power and through that they become unfeeling. Their desire for power or control ends up casting Lear out of their homes and she is forced to head out into the storm.

Richard Lee (Albany) & Naomi Wright (Goneril). Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.

I’m going to flip to the subplot for a second. I should mention that generally I enjoy the subplot more than the plot of Lear, but not this time. It fell a little flat for me. First, Gloucester was a pretty good-looking dude instead of the older gentleman he is normally portrayed as. I think because of this switch he came off as cockier to me rather than blindly (haha) ignorant, so I did not feel as bad during the blinding and following scenes. This is a personal preference for me though and nothing to do with Jason Cadieux’s performance.

Secondly, Edmund was performing as gay. I say the word performing intentionally because a lot of stereotypes of a “gay man” were used to signal his sexual orientation. It got a couple of laughs but overall it disrupted the anger or manipulative quality of Edmund. I personally love the idea of Edmund’s anger stemming from a place of feeling rejected somehow by his father because of his sexual orientation. But they instead just used him for some laughs. The whole thing just felt too light for me. Edmund became a vehicle for jokes rather than the puppet master. Again, this is not a reflection on Brett Dahl’s performance, but just not my preference for how I would like it to be staged.

Thirdly, Edgar’s disguise involved just throwing on a hoodie. I know disguises do not have to be amazingly transformative but come on.

Jason Cadieux (Gloucester) & Diane D’Aquila (Lear). Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.

The character of the Fool was interestingly used in this production. Robert Persichini played a dejected cross-dressed clown that seemed like something out of sad painting. Famously, the character of the Fool disappears following Act 3, which leaves a lot of wiggle room about what happens to him. Newton has the Fool reappear like an Angel of Death whose fan has the power to strike down or control their bodies (like dolls?) when he flourishes it open with a snap. It led to some amazing visual moments in the show such as the announcement of Goneril and Reagan’s death where they enter in black veils and fall to their knees after the Fool uses his fan. He also was the key figure at the end of the show controlling the characters. A flag was planted on the balcony of the stage except instead of a flag it was a black dress hoisted into the air and illuminated by lights.

The production design elements were also lacking a bit for me. The set design was pretty dark and dim with some reflective walls placed at the top. The costumes were a mix of contemporary and Elizabethan but overall very black. The most interesting outfit was the Fool who had on a checkerboard dress signaling his game master persona. The one in charge of the chessboard.

Jenni Burke (Kent) & Robert Persichini (Fool). Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

However, an element that made me so incredibly happy was a badass warrior Cordelia. She begins the show as a timid peach and returns as Xena Warrior Princess. By far the coolest visual moment of the show was her appearing in armor with a veil of smoke behind her as she wields her sword ready for battle. Cleverly, the battle scenes were articulated on a chessboard with Cordelia versus Edmund.

I also need just an entire paragraph to rave about D’Aquila who made the show. She could be cruel and violent in her anger and then with the flip of a switch she was dainty and silly. Her scenes with Cordelia were beautiful and sad. She stole every scene. This Lear to me seemed like someone who had to relearn how to feel things rather than restraining themselves. She had to learn to care rather than ruling without feeling.

I took the message of this Lear to be that only through caring can we achieve hope for a better world rather than an uncaring world. We should protect the Cordelia parts of ourselves who feel deeply and honestly. By the end of the show, Lear shares her grief and anguish and feels it so deeply that that is what ultimately sets her free of the prison-like existence she was living before.

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