Canada’s Stratford Festival Offers a Radical Richard II and a Lively King Lear

Martin Morrow*

King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Kimberley Rampersad; April 24 to October 29, 2023. Richard II, by William Shakespeare, directed by Jillian Keiley; May 23 to September 28, 2023. Both shows at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada.

We’ve always been fascinated by the vagaries of kings. Mention Imperial Rome, and those mad, murderous emperors Caligula and Nero spring to mind. Britain’s best-known male monarch is arguably the much-married Henry VIII, whose oft-told tale of weddings and beheadings is most recently the subject of a hit pop musical (Six).

The Shakespearean canon boasts its share of rulers whose erratic or extravagant behaviour has dire consequences. Two of them were in the spotlight at the 2023 Stratford Festival in Canada, which saw both a radical re-imagining of the history play Richard II, set during the 1970s disco era, and a more straightforward but equally lively treatment of the tragedy King Lear.

Richard II is, apart from a couple of famous speeches, among the lesser-known plays in Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle, which reached an artistic pinnacle with Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Richard II sets up those sequels, but its dramatic interest resides in the self-glorifying and self-pitying Richard, whose ill-judged wielding of what he perceives to be his divine powers leads to his downfall. His throne is usurped by his exiled cousin Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) after Richard arbitrarily confiscates his inheritance to fund a military campaign in Ireland.

For this Stratford revival, veteran Canadian director Jillian Keiley, known for shaking up the classics, remade Richard as a 1970s disco drama queen, while her adaptor, playwright Brad Fraser, added a queer romance between the monarch and his much-favoured cousin, the Duke of Aumerle, who ultimately betrays his lover to save his own skin. There was, in fact, more than a hint of Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, in Fraser’s adaptation, which recalled Marlowe’s Edward II—especially the 1991 film version by iconoclastic queer filmmaker Derek Jarman.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as King Richard with members of his court in Richard II. Photo: David Hou

Certainly, Jarman would have loved Keiley and Fraser’s outrageous scene set in a roiling hot-tub, where Richard (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and Aumerle (a smooth Emilio Vieira) alternately plan the Irish expedition and engage in various sex acts beneath the undulating waters.

Almost as outrageous was Jackman-Torkoff’s portrayal of Richard. Black and non-binary, slender and moustachioed, the young Toronto actor gave us a king who bore more than a passing resemblance to that late figure of pop royalty, Prince. Kitted out in costume designer Bretta Gerecke’s disco finery, which included a feathered cloak, platform shoes and a codpiece emblazoned with Richard’s crest, the white hart, Jackman-Torkoff was a stunning, amusing and highly kinetic figure—a Richard prone almost as much to dancing as to soliloquizing.

The king’s decadent court, meanwhile, looked as if that disco-era legend, New York’s Studio 54, had time-tripped back to medieval England, complete with a giant mirrored disco ball. The latter descended to the stage in the play’s final scenes and transformed into the deposed Richard’s prison—a clever touch from set designer Michael Gianfrancesco.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff’s Richard (left) gets intimate with his lover, the Duke of Aumerle (Emilio Vieira), in Richard II. Photo: David Hou

One of the intriguing aspects of Shakespeare’s play is the way Richard so willingly embraces defeat. Where the playwright’s other bad kings often go down fighting (see: Richard III, Macbeth), this one famously collapses: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” Richard tells his followers upon learning that Bolingbroke has turned his subjects against him, in what I’ll call Famous Speech No. 1.

Richard is a monarch with a martyr complex, revelling in his fate, and Keiley’s production underscored the king’s identification with a persecuted Christ, as well as his belief in his own divinity—his retinue sport wings, manifesting his claim that God’s angels fight on his behalf. But his at times comical self-pity also leads to more sobering reflections on mortality, flashes of philosophical poetry which presage the deeper musings of Hamlet. Jackman-Torkoff, who otherwise did a splendid job of making the solipsistic Richard a compelling figure, wasn’t quite capable of capturing their eloquence.

Then again, this was show more inclined toward the sensational than the contemplative. Keiley built up the play’s brief, violent denouement, Richard’s murder in prison, and Fraser rewrote it so that it was Aumerle who kills the fallen king in order to buy a pardon from Bolingbroke (the stolidly straight Jordin Hall). Afterwards, a repentant Judas, Vieira’s distraught Aumerle delivered an angry reprise of the “death of kings” speech over his lover’s corpse.

Aumerle (Emilio Vieira, right) mourns the death of Richard (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) in Richard II. Photo: David Hou

Fraser’s other interpolations included having one of Bolingbroke’s followers, Lord Willoughby (Charlie Gallant), complain about a mysterious ailment, which grew worse as the play progressed—a none-too-subtle allusion to the AIDS epidemic that put a tragic end to the high-flying gay lifestyles of the 1970s.

Purists may not have liked such additions to Shakespeare’s text, or some of the cuts. Most noticeably, Fraser’s deleting of Famous Speech No. 2: the deathbed prophesy by Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (David Collins), which contains a description of England—“This other Eden, demi-paradise . . . This precious stone set in a silver sea”—beloved of chauvinistic Brits. Although these are the words of your typical old man lamenting the loss of an imagined idyllic past, perhaps Fraser felt their praise of “[t]hat England that was wont to conquer others” was anathema at a time when Canadians are more aware than ever of a shameful colonial past.

I do know some audience members were scandalized by the Fraser-Keiley approach. During the hot-tub scene at the matinee performance I attended, I heard repeated expressions of disgust from an older spectator directly behind me. The woman he was with finally had to restrain him from making an immediate exit. Was he appalled at the liberties taken with Shakespeare? Was he homophobic? Possibly he was both. It seemed Fraser, now in his sixties, was still the “bad boy” playwright he had been in the 1980s and 1990s, when he shocked and excited mainstream audiences with his openly queer, sexually explicit plays, including his international hit, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. I thought the times had caught up with him long ago, but it seems he can still cause a stir in some quarters.

Paul Gross’s Lear (centre) divides his kingdom between daughters Cordelia (Tara Sky, left), Goneril (Shannon Taylor, centre left) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green, right) in King Lear. Photo: David Hou

Director Kimberley Rampersad took a more conventional tack with her treatment of that much greater play, King Lear. Her production served primarily as a showcase for popular Canadian television and film star Paul Gross, who shot to fame in the 1990s as a ruggedly handsome Mountie in the television series Due South. His sporadic theatre forays over the years have shown he’s also a superb stage actor and in terms of sheer entertainment, his Lear didn’t disappoint. His rash king was, at times, as prone to histrionics as Jackman-Torkoff’s Richard II. Dividing his kingdom among his daughters in the opening scene, Gross turned Lear’s line about crawling “unburdened towards death” into a joke, shouting the word “death” as if he were the bogeyman trying to scare small children.

Gross’s silver fox of a monarch did, indeed, seem a far cry from the final breath, being spry and playful as well as mercurial. For regular Stratford-goers, it was a reminder of the festival’s last Lear, Colm Feore, who gave a similarly youthful performance of the role in 2014. Once again, it made the play seem like, among other things, a warning against too-early retirement.

Gross’s Lear, with his unpredictable moods and eccentric delivery, was more a figure of increasing mental instability, the storm on the heath finally sending him over the edge. Rampersad’s vivid staging of that iconic scene had him walking barefoot along an illuminated wooden beam, like an acrobat balancing on a tightrope of lightning, and then being pelted by a sudden downpour of hail.

Paul Gross as Lear on the heath in Kimberley Rampersad’s production of King Lear. Photo: David Hou

Almost as striking was that grisliest of scenes, the blinding of the loyal Earl of Gloucester (Anthony Santiago) by Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green) and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Rylan Wilkie), with one bloody eyeball hitting the stage to audible gasps in the audience.

Designer Judith Bowden’s revolving set, with walls shifting ominously to Sean Mayes’s sombre musical score, recalled that reference to the wheel of fortune by Lear’s other loyal subject, the Earl of Kent (David W. Keeley). He gets off easily by comparison, only being set in the stocks.

Such a dark tragedy allows for only bitter humour, much of it delivered here with just the right degree of needling sauciness by Gordon Patrick White’s Fool, whose braided hair suggested a trickster figure from Canadian Indigenous folklore.

Gordon Patrick White as The Fool (left) jests with Paul Gross’s monarch in King Lear. Photo: David Hou

The acting was generally strong, but the sections involving Gloucester’s sons, Edgar and Edmund, suffered from, to my mind, a stroke of miscasting. André Sills, robust and sexually magnetic (he played the title role in Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus at the 2018 festival), would be the obvious choice for that wily player Edmund, to whom Goneril and Regan are both fatally attracted. Instead, he was cast as the wronged Edgar, while a mild-mannered Michael Blake, more suited to that chameleonic role, portrayed Edmund. I also found it absurd that Edgar, in his disguise as the deranged beggar Poor Tom, is continually referred to as naked and pitiable, while a sturdy, fully clad Sills, in fact, looked like the one character best able to weather the wind and rain.

Michael Blake (left) as Edmund and André Sills as Edgar in King Lear. Photo: David Hou

Those little directorial gaffs can rankle more than any bold rewriting, à la Richard II. But at the end of the play, as Sills’s Edgar spoke its moving moral, I still choked up—as I do at any half-effective revival of this tragedy.

Rampersad’s King Lear was a solid interpretation. But, unless you’re a Paul Gross fan, not among the more memorable in the Stratford Festival’s 71-year history. Keiley’s Richard II, on the other hand, will go on to be referenced as one of its more daring and imaginative shows. 

*Martin Morrow is a Past President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and a two-time winner of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Award for excellence in critical writing. He has served as chief theatre critic of the Calgary Herald (1988-2000), Fast Forward Weekly (2003–06) and The Grid (2011–14). Since 2010, he has been a theatre critic and arts writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

Copyright © 2023 Martin Morrow
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