King Lear

Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 28

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Mark Leonard Winter, Jacek Koman, Geoffrey Rush and Robyn Nevin. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.


It’s all there in Lear: ultimate acts of cruelty and kindness; pinnacles of despair and triumphalism; arrogantly wielded power and a descent into beggarly madness. Masterly constructed, it is not a play of plot and sub-plots, but of tightly interwoven narratives, so that although the character of King Lear still towers over the work bearing his name, no less than 10 other characters are major figures – substantially more than in any other of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

Interestingly Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of King Lear within about three years of the term “Dark Ages” first being coined, and it is hard to imagine a play that better evokes all that this term would have meant to a pre-Enlightenment mind. The ability to see and not see, literally and metaphorically, dominates the story at every turn; a story that grows from soil crawling with pagan horrors and delights. Lear’s is a godless world – however much he howls at deities! – and this is crucial to his utter existential aloneness. Confronting himself as no more than a speck in a black and hostile universe is so cataclysmic that changes are wrought upon him that are inconceivable in the opening scene.

Above all it is Shakespeare’s most devastating play emotionally. Lear bearing Cordelia’s murdered body maybe the saddest moment summoned up in all theatre. Lear on the heath in Act IV, “fantastically dressed in wild flowers”, is not far behind, and Gloucester, Edgar, Cordelia and even Kent and the Fool all get their chances to wring our hearts.

All in all I know of no greater play, and therefore it was with an all-too-rare excitement that I entered the theatre, given that Geoffrey Rush was playing Lear and Neil Armfield was directing, and the career symmetry seemed perfect after the pair had collaborated on an unforgettable Exit the King. The rest of the cast for the Sydney Theatre Company production was awash with talent, as were the musical, design and lighting roles.

Over three hours later I left having seen a good, and at times brilliant production, but one that comprehensively failed to move me on anything like the scale of which this play is capable.

So what went wrong?

Let’s turn firstly to Alice Babidge’s costumes, which are of an indeterminate twentieth-century nature of varying formality, according to the occasion. I make no argument for what we might call “period” costumes, but Babidge’s creations are too far at odds with the menace and witchery of the primeval world that envelops the action. If the point of the initial cocktail frocks and bow-ties was the show the grandeur from which Lear descends into a world of hovels and beggars it is too literal.

Robert Cousins’ set designs – variously a bare black box and a bare white box – certainly throw the focus back on to language, character and story, but we might reasonably have expected the black box to better suit the storm scene than the white.

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Max Cullen and Geoffrey Rush. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

Much more important, though, to the production’s inability to land the vital emotional king-hits, are the acting and directing. There are times when Rush is everything you could ever want from a Lear, as in the scenes on the heath in the wake of the storm, when the physical acting is breathtaking and he lets that charming child-like quality of his emerge. The language is certainly no hurdle for Rush, either: the problem is deeper. It is bound up in the lack of an ultimate vulnerability, the lack of a more torrential fury, and the lack of a deep enough chasm of despair when Cordelia is lost to him. Yet he is such a towering actor that these elements may grow stronger during the season, and it seems odd that he and Armfield have not aligned such crucial elements in advance.

Of the rest Helen Buday gives a superb portrayal as Goneril; one that is so finely nuanced that her slide from imperious ruler to jilted lover is not only credible, but even affecting. She also exhibits the most complete command of the language of anyone on the stage. Helen Thomson becomes a high-society clothes-horse as the ruthless Regan, and while she can exert a commanding presence, some comic-book elements creep into her depiction of evil. Eryn Jean Norvill is a clear-eyed, clear-voiced Cordelia, and Max Cullen a muttering, soft-hearted Gloucester, but neither fully undermines our hearts.

Robyn Nevin turns in a somewhat bewildering performance as the beloved Fool, playing him as a crazed Shakespearian version of Roy Rene’s Mo McCackie. Her physical acting is often wonderful, although, alas, the lines too often were lost.

While Meyne Wyatt, as Edmund, exhibited commendable voice projection and ease with the verse, he too often frothed in anger when a colder menace would have better served the role. For spending over half the play stark naked when Edgar is posing as Poor Tom, Mark Leonard Winter should get some sort of medal (if one could safely find somewhere to pin it!), and he joins Buday and Jacek Koman’s Kent as among the production’s finest performances.

A particular strength is the music, attributed to John Rodgers, although much of it was improvised by the exceptional duo of Simon Barker (drums) and Phil Slater (trumpet). It arched up to stunning effect in the storm scene, where Armfield and Cousins have thrown caution to the (gale-force) wind, and allowed the play to become a spectacle. Four sprinklers in the flies inundated the stage with a deluge, drenching Lear, Poor (naked) Tom and the others, the effect compounded by Nick Schlieper’s lighting. Even this was conceptually was misguided, however. The effect was so remarkable as to be distracting, and with all the accompanying commotion we lost too much of the verse with which Lear berates the elements; verse that should carry all the power of lightning bolts without needing recourse almost to the real thing.

Until January 9.