Review: The Shadow King

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Thursday, March 6

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Thursday, March 6

To take one of Shakespeare’s and western literature’s greatest works and successfully transform it into an Australian Indigenous tragedy takes courage, skill and deep insight, as well as daring. That director Michael Kantor and actor, playwright, musician and songwriter Tom E. Lewis have plenty of all these is abundantly clear from their adaptation of King Lear. The cast is scaled down from about 20 to just eight, the language mixes Shakespeare’s with modern English and occasional Indigenous creole, the actions is punctuated now and then by songs and Lear’s unwise distribution of the land he considers his to give becomes even more pregnant with danger because of the money stemming from mineral rights. The ingenious set is on a revolve. At different times landscapes, the sky, a house with a practical door for entrances are projected on it, and for one scene it becomes a huge truck, its lights glaring into the audience. The main acting space below, to which the actors descend, is covered with red sand, at certain crucial moments lifted up and sifted through their hands, underlining Lear’s basic error. As the two-hour play proceeds, Shakespearian details slide away or are replaced, not always to advantage. There seems no reason for the blinding of Gloucester, who is played with quiet dignity by Frances Djubiling, for example, and the eruption of Lear’s madness arrives unheralded by his ‘Oh fool, I shall go mad!’ in Shakespeare’s Act 2. A mean-spirited Goneril, Natasha Wanganeen, has several children and in the past both she and a particularly vicious Regan, Jada Alberts, have been raped by Edmund. That manipulative villain is played to the hilt by Jimi Bani, a charismatic actor to match Lewis, whose Lear is enormously engaging, giving the great demands of the role all the power they need without a trace of over-acting. He finally comes to realise that he cannot give the land away, because he does not own it. It is the land that owns him, his family, and all around him. Damion Hunter has too little to do to establish Edgar as a character, but redeems himself when he become Poor Tom, but Rarriwuy Hick is hardly given a chance to establish the firmness as well as the sweetness of Cordelia. The cleverest bit of character adaptation is reinventing Lear’s Fool, who disappears in Act 3 Scene 6 of Shakespeare’s play, as Lear’s faithful guardian Kent. Kamahi Djordon King is a constant pleasure in his commentary, his chiding of Lear, his backchat. His significance for Kantor and Lewis is shown by their giving him, not Edgar, their play’s closing lines: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’ All too true. Rating: ****  

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