All Aboriginal cast takes Shakespeare’s great tragedy into 17th-century Canada
The aging Lear, his head heavy from the weight of his crown, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Madness, horrendous cruelty and political chaos ensue, with Lear and his fellow characters speaking some of the most powerful lines in English drama.
Ask August Schellenberg, who plays the title role in the upcoming and much-anticipated all-Aboriginal production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre, about his character, and in typically blunt fashion he responds, “He’s a stupid old man is what he is.”
Bingo! Schellenberg has just nailed a key part of what makes King Lear one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: the gulf (who hasn’t glimpsed it in their own life?) between the sublime that is our potential and the sadly ordinary that is our reality.
He’s also pointed, at least implicitly, to another gulf: the one that still yawns between First Nations peoples and the rest of us.
That latter chasm is one reason Schellenberg, a Montreal-born Métis with years of theatre and film credits to his name, finally fulfilled a long-simmering desire to perform in an all-Aboriginal Lear by proposing the idea to NAC English Theatre artistic director Peter Hinton, who is directing this show.
“I did it to prove we can handle roles that aren’t just Aboriginal,” says Schellenberg, who was in the production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe that inaugurated the NAC English Theatre in 1969 and returned in a new version in 2009.
Hinton has made it part of his mandate to spotlight Aboriginal theatre at the NAC and didn’t take much convincing.
“What the play speaks to about land, division, government, love, and our own history of first contact (between First Nations and Europeans) is incredibly potent,” says Hinton. “It seemed the perfect play to celebrate the acting talents of our Aboriginal acting community.”
Hinton has set the play in 17th-century Canada when First Nations people were beginning to see the influences of contact with Europeans. As a grand chief, Lear hopes to stave off war between tribes — and presumably strengthen the nations as a whole against the impact of Europeans — by dividing the land among them.
And while Schellenberg points out the foolishness of that idea, he admires Lear’s “honesty … that he thinks he’s doing the right thing.”
At the end of the play, having emerged from madness to find his family destroyed and his kingdom in tatters, Lear is a wiser man. But, says Schellenberg, “It’s too late. History just repeats itself. That’s why it’s called The Tragedy of King Lear.”
At 75, Schellenberg can relate to the aging king. “I’ve discovered it takes lots of energy to play this role. The lines! I phoned my wife the other day and said, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ It’s not fun getting old.”
A Métis from Fort McMurray, Alta., Cardinal has made her mark in theatre, film and television including Dances With Wolves, North of 60, Black Robe and The Vagina Monologues.
In King Lear, she plays the king’s middle daughter Regan. With her older sister Goneril, Regan inherits the entire kingdom when Lear decides to award the largest portion to the daughter who loves him the most.
Goneril and Regan flatter their father while their younger sister Cordelia, unable to express her deep love, says nothing and is disinherited.
Power, as always, corrupts, and Goneril and Regan are soon festering, banishing the old king from their homes to eventually go mad on the heath. But Regan and Goneril, viewed through a First Nations lens, have a deep back story, says Cardinal.
“European women were tied up in corsets while our women were running their society, making decisions. But when our men saw the way European men treated women, they smiled and said, ‘Oh, this is OK.’ And they forgot how things used to be.”
Regan, she says, is the outcome of those influences. Unprepared to assume power, when she gets it she becomes sick with it.
In First Nations teachings, Cardinal adds, the greatest gift is new life, and women are the carriers of that life. Significantly, neither Regan nor Goneril has children, only power. One suspects that the disinherited Cordelia, powerless in ways that don’t matter, would have been fecund had she not died at the end of the play.
Whether this production works in a 17th-century First Nations setting, and whether that setting resonates with contemporary urban, primarily white audiences remains to be seen.
“It was a crazy time, people fighting for land,” says Cardinal, pausing for a moment. “It’s not much different now.”