Thirty-year-old director Philip McKee says it is a privilege working with Clare Coulter, the veteran Canadian performer he has cast as King Lear in an experimental production at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. The 70-year-old actress, on the other hand, calls the experience "traumatic."
"The younger generation, all of whom are 40 years younger than me, they impose a takeover of me," Coulter said in an interview, explaining how the artistic process of working with McKee and three young actresses imitated the action of the play in which the foolish Lear is pushed aside by his daughters. "It's highly traumatic for me to see a tradition I helped establish overthrown. I realized I was superfluous to these young people, a negative influence. I felt I was brought to my knees, which was the story of Lear."
It seems typical of Coulter, one of the most intelligent and generous actors Canada has ever produced, that she views this ego-bruising experiment as utterly necessary and is eager to talk about what she's learned from it.
There was a fashion in the 1990s to cast leading ladies as Shakespeare's tragic heroes: In London, Fiona Shaw played Richard II; in Toronto, Janet Wright played Lear. More recently, Seana McKenna played Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2011. All of these productions were more or less gender-blind and all, inevitably, had things to say about gender. McKee starts with a similar premise – give your best actors the best parts – but mainly has things to say about Lear's great theme, age.
"I was trying to think of a classic text with a role for an older woman that is substantial," explains McKee, who first met Coulter while studying directing at the National Theatre School and worked with her on two shows. "There aren't any. So what about the roles for the men: Which are the best? It began as a practical solution to a problem."
It has become a production about passing one's legacy to the next generation as the trio of actresses who play Goneril, Regan and the truthful Cordelia (Liz Peterson, Amy Nostbakken and Lindsey Clark) set up the theatrical show of monarchy and then destroy it.
"We are receiving the legacy of King Lear's play in the kingdom of theatre, and there is an older actor who is transmitting the legacy in the theatre itself.… The younger actors continue their own version of the play which ultimately kicks Clare out."
But Lear has abused his power; his handover is disastrous as he fails to recognize Cordelia's refusal to flatter him as honest love and is betrayed by the grasping Goneril and Regan. The actor's story may be less tragic, but in real life, Coulter was shocked to discover that her legacy was also ripe for reversal. She came of professional age in the 1970s as a new nationalist generation rejected the limited, anglo-centric theatre English Canada had to offer and established the Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille. Today, that is the establishment she points out.
"In my mind I am still an experimental person but for younger people I am part of the tradition.… Someone like Phil seems to be saying, 'I don't want to be part of it; I want to do something else.'"
But aside from working outside the well-established subsidized theatre where Coulter made her career, what legacy is it that will be overthrown?
"What we established was based on literary narrative," Coulter says, pointing out that she is known as a monologist and the Canadian playwrights in whom she specialized, Michel Tremblay, John Murrell, Judith Thompson, operate in a storytelling tradition in which the drama often centres around past events.
"I realize how encased I am in the word, trying to present the word and its ability to carry a story.… Shakespeare doesn't do that, … there is no storytelling aspect. There is not a single word that is not involved in moving the action, even the soliloquies [ask] what should I do next?"
Coulter's last appearance at the Tarragon in Daniel MacIvor's Was Spring last year is typical of the stylistic distinction she is making: There, she played the oldest woman in a trio representing different reactions to a traumatic event in their shared past. In King Lear, as Gloucester is blinded or Lear goes mad, the traumatic event is present on stage.
"I love who I am, I love the skill that I have developed, but this play shows there is another skill I am developing and…," she pauses, "I am on my way out."
McKee hastens to add that his production "is not saying young is better; they take over and their show implodes on itself.… In the first half we create something that is more bombastic than Clare and at the end we arrive at something that is incredibly personal."
But there is no denying Coulter's honesty nor much use comforting her with her greatness: Youth may not be better, but its rise is as inevitable as senescence's retreat.
King Lear opens Tuesday and continues to March 10 at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.