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King Lear

A chamber Lear from Bell Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare
by
ABR Arts 24 June 2024

King Lear

A chamber Lear from Bell Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare
by
ABR Arts 24 June 2024
Robert Menzies as King Lear (photograph by Brett Boardman)
Robert Menzies as King Lear (photograph by Brett Boardman)

King Lear is the Everest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, looming over theatre companies, challenging them to make the perilous ascent. It is also the darkest. Hamlet may finish with almost as many bodies strewn around the stage, and Macbeth delves deep into malign forces unleashed by cravings for power, but with the former ending with the arrival of Fortinbras, Hamlet’s chosen successor, and the latter with the ascension of Malcolm there is some sense of a positive outcome. Of the trio who survive at the end of King Lear, the faithful Kent walks away to die and the ineffectual Albany hands over the kingdom to Edgar. The play ends with the enigmatic and hardly encouraging remark: ‘The oldest have borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’

Over the years there have been varying approaches to this daunting work. In an attempt to make it more palatable, the infamous 1681 version by Nahum Tate, which was performed for a century and a half, restored Lear to sanity and his throne, and contrived a love affair between Edgar and Cordelia. In the existentialist 1960s, Peter Brook and Paul Scofield accentuated the script’s nihilism, while in 2016 Glenda Jackson and Deborah Warner blurred genders in a triumphant production.

It is both the strength and the weakness of Peter Evans’s production for Bell Shakespeare that he eschews any contemporary relevance and gives us the play straight. As he says in his program notes: ‘Lear creates the circumstances for a power vacuum and chaos … A production doesn’t need to make these explicitly contemporary for an audience to find themselves reflected.’

Performed in the round in the company’s Nutshell theatre, which seats 240, this is a chamber Lear. Anna Tregloan has designed a gilt floor with a black disc at its centre. Looming above it is a gilded empyrean spiral. Props appear and disappear strictly as needed. Changes of scene are indicated by Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting. With a couple of exceptions, costumes are utilitarian black, enhanced by the odd cape.

The lack of clutter allows Evan’s fluent production to move rapidly – sometimes too rapidly. Important scenes flash past almost before one has absorbed them. But Evans presents the two intertwined plots clearly. This reviewer was sitting near a couple who had obviously never before come in contact with the play; they reacted with surprise and horror as the grisly events unfolded.

Alex King as Edgar and Darius Williams as Edmund photograh by Brett BoardmanAlex King as Edgar and Darius Williams as Edmund (photograh by Brett Boardman)

This pared-back physical production puts the focus firmly on the actors, with mixed results, but its intimacy particularly suits Robert Menzies’ Lear. As an actor, Menzies is about as far away from the old-style histrionics of a Donald Wolfit as it is possible to get. Rather than attempting to blow you out of the room, he draws you in. His Lear has held power for so long that he has no interest in making an impression, and he scurries on without pomp and ceremony, both scatty and determined. This is a man already disintegrating. His anger at Cordelia’s intransigence is just that: anger. Rage comes later when confronted by his other daughters, and his cursing of Goneril has a frightening intensity. He is equal to Cisterne and sound designer Max Lyandvert’s storm. It is in the later scenes, as Lear discovers his humanity, that Menzies really comes into his own. His scene with the blinded Gloucester (an excellent James Lugton) blends humour and pathos as it should, but he reaches his emotional peak with his howls over Cordelia’s corpse, even though he was denied Lear’s traditional entrance with the body.

Lugton’s Gloucester is a stolid courtier completely out of his depth in the changing circumstances. Darius Williams as Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, presents himself to us with a nicely sardonic version of the ‘Thou nature art my goddess’ speech, but he lacks the character’s cold malevolence and, like most Edmunds, finds it difficult to make the dying man’s sudden repentance convincing. Alex King, otherwise a fine Edgar, Gloucester’s noble son, is an unfortunate victim of cross-gender casting. This can work – it certainly does with Janine Watson’s sterling Kent – but as the text makes perfectly clear, Edgar as Mad Tom has to be naked in the storm scenes and all those references became meaningless when the subject is fully clothed.

Elsewhere, the casting was not so successful. Lizzie Schebesta as Goneril and Tamara Lee Bailey as Regan came across as petulant rather than evil. Melissa Kahraman’s fool was an improvement on her Cordelia. She got her laughs, but there was no real connection between her and the king she loves and understands better than anyone.

But weaknesses in casting aside, the clarity of Evans’s production, buttressed by Menzies’ authoritative performance, meant that, by the performance’s end, the cumulative power of the play won through.


 

King Lear (Bell Shakespeare) continues at the Neilson Nutshell until 20 July 2024 and then moves to the Arts Centre Melbourne from 25 July to 7 August. Performance attended: 20 June.

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