Spirit Quest

Spirit Quest

A moving performance of King Lear by aboriginals

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

It seems like a bit of a stretch to hear Elizabethan English from the mouths of a cast dressed in aboriginal attire presenting Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Lear. But that sense of a “stretch” was dissipated by the fact that everyone on stage at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre was in fact aboriginal from First Nation communities all across this land. Gordon Patrick White in the role of  Edgar, the king's eldest son, came from far east Newfoundland. Kevin Loring, played the role of Edmund, the king’s bastard son, hails from BC. Everyone of the 40 actors came from First Nation communities  from all across this land.

King Lear is without a doubt, one of the greatest plays written in the English language, a play that pits  greed against love in the political context of a time long ago. But Shakespeare’s genius is that the dynamics of his drama are not left in some distant past. Love and  greed are, after all, universal themes, and very much alive in any time, indeed, our own. It was nevertheless a daring adventure to place the drama in a North American setting.

Peter Hinton, Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre, dared to do this as a finale to his career in that position.  He writes in his Notes on the Play Bill, that, “It perhaps goes without saying that the history of our country, and the enormous impact of First People discovering the Europeans, provides us with a vital understanding of our contemporary world, and has enormous impact on the drama of King Lear.”

The play was first performed in 1606 and portrayed an ancient Britain in the last days of an aging ruler. Sensing the nearness of his departure from the mortal stage he divides his realm among his three daughters. He demands from them evidence of their love and loyalty. Cordelia, the youngest, refuses in what she believes is a “show”. In the NAC performance the ancient realm is transposed to the historic scenario of English, French and First Nations as they struggle in their first contact.

I am not a Shakespeare scholar, nor have I ever seen King Lear performed in its original form, nevertheless, the performance made a tremendous impact on me. I and my spouse, who studied Shakespeare at college and had just read the play, discussed it intensely.

The stage setting and costumes were devised and supervised by Gillian Gallow, a recipient of the Dora Mavor Moore Award. A protruding stage was sparse with a campfire in the centre for part of the performance. At the centre back was a  huge door, as of a fort made of tree trunks, reminiscent of the early Canadian wilderness. The actors  were attired in native and colonist garb and were very beautiful especially in their furs. The sounds of native drumming and chanting all added to a convincing scenario in spite of the words of the great bard. The sound of torrential rain put us all in a shiver. One of the cast witnessing the Duke of Glaucester having his eyes put out, wasn’t the only one with a queasy stomach.

It’s hard to refrain from wondering what William Shakespeare would have thought had he seen his masterpiece so transported into the North American venue of which there was little known at his time.

Forty-five years ago John Julian, a director, who passed away in 2003 and August Schellenberg, of Montreal, dreamed of doing Lear with an All First Nations acting company. Schellenberg, himself of mixed blood and now living in Texas, is a veteran of the stage. He played the title role of The King, on this stage, as the aging chief.

Many today suggest that the only hope for First Nation people is assimilation. Of course that had been the intention of  Canadian and American governments throughout history. It was the purpose of the residential schools to bring this about. Children were kidnapped from parents and communities and taken off to distant religious institutions where they were systematically and brutally deprived of their language and culture.

Is assimilation the only solution or does the production of a quintessential English “old world” drama in an aboriginal setting hint at the possibility of retaining the richness and the beauty of another, perhaps more earthy and certainly spiritual culture? It is only in an appreciation of each others gifts that we can attain respect and strive for freedom and interdependence and avoid the urge to dominate. Perhaps Cordelia can give us a clue of genuine love and loyalty.

The play is an inspiration to continue to pursue and experiment and to risk, in order to hold our cultural values in honour.

The great bard in another of his masterpieces Hamlet put these words in the mouth of the Prince of Denmark. He tells Horatio that “There is a divinity that shapes our end, rough hew it as we may.”  We have done a lot of “rough hewing,” but I believe that there is a Spirit that will prevail.


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