Howard Barker’s 1989 “Seven Lears” finally makes its North American debut, at the hands of director Richard Rose and Necessary Angel, the company responsible for the runaway interactive hit “Tamara,” in the days before computer jargon had usurped the word.
This is Necessary Angel’s fourth Barker play, and it makes sense that Rose, now also director of the Stratford Festival’s Young Company, should tackle the one connected to Shakespeare — if only peripherally. Perhaps no other Canadian director could wrestle this particular text into submission, much less shed light on Barker’s perennial themes of the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, on the one hand, and between criminality and politics on the other.
“Seven Lears” positions the monarch as an ugly scar on a devastated sociopolitical landscape filled with starving masses, greedy aristocracy and brutal warfare. A prison chorus consistently confronts Lear in the best Brechtian style, commenting on injustice and begging for relief, while Lear shifts from a child who responds to their plaintive pleas to the man who willfully and gleefully ignores them. But beyond this, what is one to make of this quirky play, in which Shakespeare’s famous monarch is given a full history to explain the absence of his mother as a character in the original play?
Even with dense subtext, theme-riddled scenes and a choppy dramatic structure , there is enough potboiler plot here to kickstart any production. A weak, selfish Lear marries the daughter of the woman he is bedding, has two children (Goneril and Regan) by her and later tries to drown Cordelia when he discovers she is the offspring of another man. At the end of the play Lear returns to the mother, shattering his wife and handing the older woman a hollow victory stripped of pride and dignity.
And just to keep things really interesting, Gloucester the beggar is elevated to a dukedom, Kent lusts after Lear’s wife, and the Fool, formerly a dignified minister of the realm, is pathetically made to fulfill a role for which he has no talent.
As Lear, Rose has cast Stuart Hughes, a Shaw Festival actor whose boyish good looks and innocent, wide-eyed wonder work perfectly, especially in the first half of the play, where humor and youth collide in such lines as, “My sense is that I shall not do this job well. Is that your sense?” Later on, Hughes trades on an eerie contrast that develops between his physical beauty and the growing ugliness of his soul. Thus he layers Lear’s unpredictable and self-centered shallowness with an ironic delivery. On the downside, he relies on vocal gymnastics at moments when more restraint would serve him better.
As the mother who was axed from history, Megan Follows is an inspired bit of casting. Well known in Canada as a child actor for playing the title role in “Anne of Green Gables,” Follows has matured into a serious talent whose work here is exemplary. She emerges as the strongest force onstage, a child bride deprived of innocence and grown into the inflexible bearer of unbearable truths that must be excised from history. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that costume designer Charlotte Dean has dressed Follows in a medieval get-up reminiscent of Joan of Arc.
Set and lighting designer Graeme Thomson has encased the actors in a black box with high walls, dangling iron chains, smothering curtains and a gauzy black scrim through which the audience views the stage. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere and some terrific lighting effects, but ultimately distances a difficult and heady play from its viewers. Not only that, but low lighting levels make it difficult to see the actors’ faces.
“Seven Lears,” like all Barker’s work, is a jungle of contrasting ideas, and in order to work fully, the production needs to marry a humanity with the playwright’s intellect. That relationship is only partly successful here. With all its layers,including the way Barker turns Shakespeare’s characters on their heads, there should be room for more emotional fireworks between the lines (or at least the half-lines, as Barker often leaves his characters floundering midsentence) than we get here. When the sparks occur, “Seven Lears” is riveting.
Some performances need anchoring, and there are a few gratingly phony British accents. Luckily, Rose’s simple but inventive staging distracts, and some of the secondary performers — in particular, Julian Richings as the corrupt Bishop and Victor Ertmanis as the blustery Kent — provide scenes of clarity and stunning theatricality.