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Abbey’s “Lear:” asserting masculinity in order to assert power?

By Natalie Dewan, January 23, 2018

For the third consecutive year, Stratford veteran Graham Abbey has brought together a team of Stratford and Shaw Festival stars for an off-season, Toronto-based production from his own Groundling Theatre. This year, the company takes on “Lear” at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

The production is wonderful and has generally received strong reviews. Unsurprisingly, two aspects have generated particular buzz. First, Canadian improv legend Colin Mochrie, of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” fame, stretches a different acting muscle as Lear’s Fool. Secondly, as the title suggests, this production removes the King from the classic play, casting Seana McKenna as Queen Lear.

The first of these changes is, unfortunately, more exciting in principle than in practice. Mochrie performs well, especially for someone with so little Shakespearean (or even scripted theatre) experience. Unfortunately Mochrie, quite understandably, does not seem as comfortable in the setting as the Shakespearean veterans around him, and his casting adds nothing significant to the performance.

The second change, however, provides a great deal of food for thought.

While gender-bending in Shakespeare is hardly a new phenomenon, it is undoubtedly on the rise. This summer’s Stratford season, for example, will feature many women in male roles, including McKenna as Julius Caesar. In a time when gender, masculinity/femininity, trans-rights, sexual harassment, and many related issues are at the forefront of our cultural conversations, it is worth examining what it means for a woman to take on a male role, and in what way.

Personally I am, on the whole, thrilled to see women take on the classic, challenging roles that they have so long been denied. It is worth asking, however, what the implications are of either asking a woman to play a man, or bending a role written by a man, for a man, into a female character.

In the case of “Lear,” overall I think that the play is enriched by the significant change of Lear into mother rather than father. The range of Lear’s emotions- from her vicious curse of sterility upon her daughter Goneril, to her heartbreak at her children’s treachery and, later, Cordelia’s death- are only heightened when they come from the parent who physically brought those children into the world.

Yet, I still wonder if it would be more effective to simply stage more works featuring complex roles explicitly for women (and even better, by women), rather than replacing or re-casting 400-year-old male characters.

Nevertheless, gender-bending has numerous advantages and possibilities- including the opportunity to explore the idea of performative gender and its relation to power.

Groundlings “Lear” has, unavoidably, been compared to two productions of “King Lear” that recently featured a woman in the lead. Glenda Jackson played Lear in 2016 at London’s Old Vic (directed by Deborah Warner), and this summer’s Shakespeare in High Park featured Diane D’Aquil as Queen Lear (directed by Alistair Newton).

While these productions may at first appear similar, they tackled gender in startlingly distinct ways.

Glenda Jackson played Lear essentially as a man- in male clothing, with an “androgynously short” (Wolf, 2016) haircut and male pronouns. D’Aquil’s Lear was explicitly a woman, and appeared in a vaguely Elizabethan, feminine dress. McKenna’s is also explicitly female, with pronouns changed, but her Lear is quite masculine in appearance- with short hair and a fairly military suit that is vague both in gender and time period.

Watching Abbey’s “Lear,” I was struck by not only McKenna’s masculine costume, but by the costuming of Goneril and Reagan. Both begin in more feminine costumes, and move into fitted pants and button-down shirts as they begin to assert their power.

Having just read brilliant classicist and feminist Mary Beard’s book “Women and Power,” I could not help but think of her exploration on the ways in which women, from at least Ancient Roman times, have had to assert masculinity in order to assert power.

As Beard argues, “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male… we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man. The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse, which is the fate of so many political wives; but they are also a simple tactic — like lowering the timbre of the voice — to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power.”

The masculine costuming of powerful women in Abbey’s “Lear” could be a recognition and even criticism of this reality, or an unfortunate internalization of the power-is-male narrative. Perhaps it is both.

This summer’s “King Lear” did see Diana D’Aquil take the part in an explicitly-feminine dress, but one with an Elizabethan look. If we were to follow Beard’s experiment and picture a powerful woman, I would argue that Elizabeth I is one of the few Western examples who would appear in our mind in an explicitly feminine outfit.

In these three productions, then, we saw a strong, experienced actress take on the famous part of Lear – and that is a great thing. Yet in none of them did we see a modern, feminine woman in command. Perhaps this is nothing more than a reflection that, as Beard points out, pants are practical and modern women don’t enter the board room or the (heaven help us, one day) Oval Office wearing a dress. Nor do they need to wear a dress to be feminine.

Nevertheless, Beard’s words have stuck with me, and I wonder if these choices are also a reflection that we still cannot conceive of power as anything but male.

Details Details
Shakespeare’s LEAR
Harbourfront Centre Theatre
January 9-28, 2018
Purchase tickets online
Call 416-973-4000

Dewan-CircleNatalie Dewan
Natalie Dewan is a Toronto-based arts administrator with particular passions for outreach, communications, and the performing arts. She holds an MA in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management, and Education from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Natalie can usually be found writing about, working for, or enjoying arts and culture in Toronto and beyond.

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Abbey’s “Lear:” asserting masculinity in order to assert power?

Keith Tomasek
23 January 2018
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