The National Art Centre’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear has been a long time in the making.

Forty-five years ago, the idea of putting together a production of King Lear performed by an all-Aboriginal company occurred to actor August Schellenberg and director John Juliani. For years, they pitched the idea to many theatres, and they were told the same thing: That it was a great idea, but that there were just not enough actors available for such a production.

When Juliani passed away in 2003, Schellenberg had practically given up hope. But in 2009, he approached Peter Hinton, the NAC’s artistic director, about the project, and everything fell into place.

“He came to me and asked if I would pick the mantle, and I was very excited and honoured to do so,” said Hinton. “A lot has changed in the last forty years. It was not difficult to cast the play because there were so many terrific actors.”

Hinton said he believes that King Lear, the tragedy of an old English king who unwisely divides his land among his daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, lends itself well to Canada’s past.

“King Lear is a play about land and the measurement of land and love and so it’s pertinent to consider the play in terms of our own history of first contact and colonization in Canada,” he said.

While Shakespeare’s text remains unchanged, the production certainly does outline those themes: the husbands and retinues of Lear’s daughters are dressed in European colonial clothing, while Lear and his entourage wear Aboriginal clothes, evoking the sharing of land between Aboriginals and Europeans hundreds of years ago.

The atrocities committed by Goneril and Regan, the two most vitriolic of Lear’s daughters, also evoke the doublespeak and cruelty of colonists towards Aboriginals.

However, these parallels frequently fade from the audience’s attention throughout the play, only to reappear in hindsight. They are there, but they do not always resonate beyond the costumes.

In addition to the incorporation of snowshoes and canoes to the story, the production is visually stunning: a single oak and a gigantic wooden gate tower in the background, leaving the stage starkly bare with minimal lighting.

“It’s not about filling a scenario with objects,” said Hinton. “It’s about the interior life of the human being at the forefront of all those things.”

The production is also sonically rich; royal fanfares are replaced by beating drums and guttural songs, and the sounds of owls, crickets, and running water permeate the air.

Schellenberg stars as Lear, and while he manages to capture the King’s imposing presence, he tends to rush his lines, which undermines the weight of his words.

Overall, though, the actors handle the material well. Jani Lauzon’s double performance as Cordelia and the Fool is particularly notable for its breadth of sensitivity and its gleefully manic humour.

While Hinton is pleased with the enthusiastic response he has received from audiences, he maintains that the goal of this production is to provoke reflection and discussion.

“We have a very difficult, contested, difficult history, and I think that this play and this production gives an opportunity to address that.”

King Lear runs at the NAC until May 26.

—Photo provided