Queen Lear, by Ronnie Dorsey Productions, is a prequel to King Lear, imagining his Queen, who is never even mentioned by Shakespeare, as she prepares to give birth to his long hoped-for son. The Queen is feverish, and passes between moments of lucidity and delirium, in which she lives inside her memories. She, her maid Ursula, and confessor Father Laurence, recollect her childhood and her marriage to Lear at age sixteen.
The language is lyrical and spellbinding, and just formal enough to sound nearly Shakespearean, though it is contemporary. The three talented actors give a mesmerising performance; in particular Alice Allemano as the Queen.
Unfortunately, the play lacks conflict, and interesting though the conversation may be, ultimately it is three people reminiscing in a room. Since females are not considered human in this society, and never make it into history, it is up to them to tell each other their histories. The Queen’s history forms most of the narrative. Father Laurence also tells his history, but it is awkwardly worked in, and ultimately adds only a conflation of gender and sex that many will find problematic. There is also quite a lot in there about the place of women, and the lack of freedom women have to make choices. It’s an interesting idea, and it would be nice to see it explored further as the basis of a more active storyline.
This play has several parallels to another King Lear prequel: the Women’s Theatre Group’s Lear’s Daughters (1987). Both discuss an absent Lear, who is portrayed as abusive and desperate for a male heir, and explore the lives of women living in a highly patriarchal society. While Lear’s Daughters seeks to explain how Lear’s three children ended up as they are, Queen Lear explains what happened to the wife he must have had – while furthering the mystery by mentioning a first wife we learn nothing about.
Queen Lear is poetic and evocative, and offers an interesting depiction of the wife King Lear must have had, but disappointingly replaces drama with exposition.