Review: Shakespeare in High Park – King Lear (Canadian Stage)

Jason Cadieux and Diane D'Aquila in King Lear - photo by Cylla von TiedemannCelebrating 35 years, Canadian Stage presents Shakespeare in High Park, King Lear, in Toronto

If you’re a theatre lover, then you clearly know that summers in Toronto are not complete without spending an evening under the stars watching one of the Bard’s classics play out in High Park. This year marks the 35th anniversary of Canadian Stage‘s Shakespeare in High Park, the longest-running outdoor theatre event in Canada. For this momentous year, Canadian Stage presents the Bard’s tragic tale of the downfall of pride that leads to madness, King Lear.

Except, this is not just a standard presentation of King Lear. Canadian Stage has decided to approach this classic from a feminist perspective and have the title role be portrayed by a woman, Diane D’Aquila. This significant change from a patriarch to a matriarch brings both a distinct vulnerability and determination to the character that is made abundantly clear in that D’Aquila’s portrayal of Lear is meant to reflect that of Queen Elizabeth I. it was a change that I was excitably intrigued to see.

In King Lear, ageing and ailing monarch Queen Lear (D’Aquila) plans to divide her kingdom among her three daughters Goneril (Naomi Wright), Regan (Hannah Wayne-Phillips) and ¬†Cordelia (Amelia Sargisson), but not before they all complete declarations of love and sole devotion to her. Goneril and Regan, while believing their mother’s demand outlandish, swear their devotion, but Cordelia refuses and is promptly banished. This results in a civil war that decimates Lear’s kingdom and leaves the Queen stripped of her family, kingdom, and ultimately her crown.

Director Alistair Newton has outdone himself in creating this sumptuous performance that is equal parts humorous, beautiful, sexy, disturbing, tragic, and eerie.

The first thing that caught my attention while watching King Lear was the stark costuming choice — Carolyn Smith does a fantastic job here in outfitting the cast with bold, monochromatic pieces. This is particularly showcased in the opening scene — a frail, fragile old woman is wheeled out onto the stage on a throne in her white nightgown. Slowly, her court gathers around her, all in sombre black attire, ladies in pronounced hoop skirts, to ceremoniously dress their Queen like them. The only difference: the pure white collar.

Secondly, the performances from this cast are out of this world. D’Aquila easily steals the show — her Queen Lear is powerful, strong and tyrannical, and yet she is fragile with what is clearly senility creeping in. I honestly can’t say enough about her; she is magnetic and mesmerising on that stage. I remember studying the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the parallels between D’Aquila’s performance and Gloriana‘s final years are uncanny.

I was also captivated by the performances of Wayne-Phillips as Regan, and Sargisson as Cordelia. Wayne-Phillips is delightfully vengeful in her role and the moment where she has the Earl of Gloucester (Jason Cadieux) captured and tortured, her performance (and those sound effects) is something I won’t soon forget. Sargisson is not on stage for very long, but when she’s there, she is instantly memorable. Her portrayal of Cordelia perfectly captures the fine line between a defiant leader of a rebellion and loving daughter.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen health complications, Robert Persichini was unable to perform his role of The Fool at the opening night performance that I attended. Director Newton stepped in to take his place. Personally, I didn’t find that this last minute change deterred from the performance at all and I hope Persichini makes a speedy recovery.

The only drawback to the performance was a technical issue, periodically throughout the latter half of the performance, where the microphones cut in and out and often actors would fluctuate between being amplified and not.

In all my years attending Shakespeare in High Park, I don’t think I’ve attended a performance that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy and King Lear lands up there among the best. This is a beautiful performance and, so long as the weather holds up, you are bound to have a great time.


  • King Lear is playing as part of Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park, at the High Park Ampitheatre (1873 Bloor St W), until September 2, 2017
  • Performances run every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8 pm
  • Tickets are $25 to reserve premium seating online, or PWYC in person (suggested donation $20), children under 14 years are free.
  • Tickets are selling fast, it is advised to reserve your seat(s) early.
  • Audience Advisory: Dramatized violence

Photo of Jason Cadieux and Diane D’Aquila by Cylla von Tiedemann