Home / Entertainment / Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during the plague. This Canadian playwright created its prequel during the COVID-19 lockdown

Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during the plague. This Canadian playwright created its prequel during the COVID-19 lockdown

From left, Helen Belay, Virgilia Griffith and Vanessa Sears rehearse for “Queen Goneril,” a new play by Erin Shields playing in repertory with William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at Soulpepper Theatre.

  • From left, Helen Belay, Virgilia Griffith and Vanessa Sears rehearse for “Queen Goneril,” a new play by Erin Shields playing in repertory with William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at Soulpepper Theatre.
  • Tom McCamus as King Lear and Virgilia Griffith as Goneril in rehearsal for “Queen Goneril,” a new play by Erin Shields playing in repertory with William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at Soulpepper.
  • Erin Shields, award-winning playwright of “Queen Goneril.”
  • Weyni Mengesha, artistic director of Soulpepper and director of “Queen Goneril.”
“Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote ‘King Lear.’” 

Thus goes the popular meme that greeted doom-scrolling TikTok and Twitter users at the height of COVID-19.

Some snarky meme-makers added, “So what did you do?”

Erin Shields’ response to William Shakespeare’s 17th-century pandemic productivity was to also write a play during quarantine. And not any old play.

The award-winning Canadian playwright decided to take on the Bard, creating “Queen Goneril,” a feminist prequel to “King Lear” itself, arguably Shakespeare’s bleakest and greatest tragedy. The two plays are now being performed in repertory at Soulpepper Theatre, opening Aug. 25 and running until early October.

“More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means that Shakespeare is our most produced and lauded playwright in the English language,” said Shields. “In some ways, that’s fantastic but, in other ways, Shakespeare was writing at a time when women weren’t even allowed onstage and so we’re constantly seeing this imbalance of voices.”

“King Lear,” a nihilist play permeated with death, chaos and hopelessness, follows an aging king who is shunned by his two malicious eldest daughters and forced to reckon with his suffering in a raging storm. Parallels abound between the work and Shakespeare’s real world — themes of isolation and self-reflection are woven into “King Lear,” along with direct references to the bubonic plague that had shuttered theatres and even touched the playwright’s house.

In Shield’s “Goneril,” the thematic parallels are twofold: the play is seemingly both in conversation with “King Lear” and 21st-century society. The prequel is set seven years before the events in Shakespeare’s play and centres on the voices of Lear’s three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.

“We spend relatively little time with the three sisters in ‘Lear.’ So I thought: What if we see Goneril and her sisters grapple with their circumstances, their feelings, their ambition, their loss and their pain in a storm?” said Shields. “What would we come to understand about them, and also what would that reveal about our current society and culture?”

Compared to the emotional depth and colour of their father, the three daughters are rather one-note characters in “King Lear.” Goneril and Regan are conniving and power-hungry, willing to spurn their father to consolidate their power, while Cordelia, the youngest, is painted as a naive, angelic saint.

“Goneril” asks how those characters came to be who they are in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

“One of my missions as a playwright from the beginning of my career is to write more parts for women because there just aren’t enough,” said Shields, whose previous works include “Paradise Lost” and “If We Were Birds,” which won a 2011 Governor General’s Award.

Shields, who is also an actor, recalls reading through Shakespeare plays and other Restoration era works during acting school and bemoaning the lack of roles for women.

“It’s frustrating as an actor, it’s frustrating as an audience member,” she said.

Now, with “King Lear” and “Goneril,” Shields hopes audiences come to appreciate how the two plays speak to each other and to the patriarchal systems of power present in Shakespeare’s time that still exist today.

“Goneril” is one of five plays by female playwrights commissioned by Soulpepper in 2020. It’s the first to be presented in a full production.

“Erin is an extraordinary writer and we’ve never produced her work,” said Weyni Mengesha, artistic director of Soulpepper and the director of “Goneril.”

When Mengesha approached the playwright about the commissioning program, Shields pitched three ideas, one of which asked: what if Goneril had her own storm? “I was immediately attached to that question and have continued to be to this day as I direct the piece,” said Mengesha.

The “Goneril” and “King Lear” repertory project is a significant undertaking for Soulpepper. It’s the company’s first since “Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott” and “La Bête” in 2018. But while those two plays merely shared the same acting company and theatre for the duration of the run, “Lear” and “Goneril” also share an artistic vision. (Though each production has a different director — Kim Collier helms “King Lear” — both share the same core group of production designers.) As well, most actors in the repertory company portray the same characters in both plays.

The 12-week rehearsal process for both productions — double the normal length — has allowed the cast and creative team to unearth the connections between the plays, said Collier.

At the start of rehearsal, actors spent two-week blocks working on each play. Once they became more familiar with each work, the company switched between rehearsal rooms more frequently.

The cast “can bring back the richness of what they’re learning in ‘Lear’ into the ‘Goneril’ room, and take all these ideas, psychology and backgrounds from ‘Goneril’ and bring it into the ‘Lear’ world,” said Collier.

For actor Virgilia Griffith, who plays Goneril, the experience has been a rewarding challenge. It’s her first time working on a repertory production, but she said playing Goneril is a full-circle moment.

When Griffith was 19 and studying Shakespearean monologues in high school drama class, she performed one of Goneril’s monologues. It was the text that resonated with her most at the time.

“I knew she was an older woman, but I felt this buzz of electricity when I said her words,” she said. “It’s pretty wild that I’m able to play her in ‘King Lear’ now but also have an expansive version of her story in ‘Queen Goneril.’”

“Queen Goneril” and “King Lear” are running at Soulpepper until Oct. 2. Visit soulpepper.ca for tickets. 

Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Joshua via email: jchong@torstar.ca

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