King Lear

January 5, 2016 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS | 1 Comment |

"Who is it that can tell me who I am?"

(by William Shakespeare, 1606)

(Dir. Neil Armfield) (Sydney Theatre Company, January 2, 2016)

We offer a link to our favourite theatrical review site, Stage Noise, for the searching and wise verdict of this production (as at November 2015) by Diana Simmonds: Stage Noise review of King Lear

We have little with which to disagree and little to add, except for this:

Lear, in essence, might not bear proper staging.  The individuals must be larger than life, and have real gravitas, so in contemporary terms, you require superstars for 7 of the roles.  You need to treat the few jokes not as comedy, not even black comedy, but counter-comedy.  The Fool’s so-called humour is really a running commentary on Lear’s foolishness in portioning out his kingdom according to prodigal measurements of demanded love, a stupidity so magnificent it could only come from a great king.  Love looms large in this story but it looms in an unwholesome, displeasing way.

Lear has the playwright perfecting his instinctive nihilism, masked by setting it in ancient Albion and pleasing James I (first modern King of Great Britain) with its warning against disunity. (Today, although the Scottish National Party seeks to cut-up the kingdom and court the return of the wolves, this stirs only lukewarm ashes of fear).  Long before Director Neil Armfield presents his blasted heath with rain, wind, thunder, bedraggled tinsel and a lunatic streaker (would he have trousered-up earlier), we audience have grasped the notion that here, all is raw, cold and desolate.

Lear’s late-onset dementia, even rendered by an actor as consummate as Geoffrey Rush, is not a great theatrical asset. That is, unless you are Shakespeare and devise an entertainment so bleak that the audience might commit suicide en masse when they perceive the totality of the play’s effect and text: the light will go out and not return – man has no meaning – life has no value – love is useless and malignant – the family unit is worse than worthless – dad, like god, is a monster who fathers and childs monsters – the human world is coming to an ugly point – nothing comes from and to nothing.  Am I clear?  As entertainment, this masterpiece of literature reeks!

So with the anti-play, one does one’s best and P really enjoyed this attempt by STC, with some heroic (and some indifferent) playing, nice settings of stormy heath and auroral beach, and lovely directorial flourishes.  For example, at finis, the dead characters stand with a black mark on their hand, face or body (and bare-footed – it’s like an apocalyptic Abbey Road).  This is good of Mr Armfield, since it enables us to recall the evening’s plentiful body count.

We are not so sure of Robyn Nevin as the Fool, wobbling on at the opening in the style of Marilyn Monroe, and returning à la Max Cullen from a Crawford cop drama.  And unless you are so magisterial as to be feared, hated and loved in equal shares, it is well-nigh impossible for Lear to move the modern crowd when he enters with Cordelia dead in his arms. But kudos; for trying something new with this production, and for their passionate work, to Rush, and Eryn Jean Norvill, Helen Thomson and Helen Buday, as the daughters doomed not to outlast their culpable dad.

Lear and Cordelia (by James Barry)

Lear and Cordelia (by James Barry)

[Lear is also a timely shot in the fight over devolution.]

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Stephen C

    January 8, 2016

    Both my parents had dementia before they died, so perhaps that colours my response to STC's King Lear. Instead of "magisterial" or "to be feared", the keynote for me was in how sad, blustering, silly and altogether pitiable was Geoffrey Rush as Lear. That felt true to me as one who has seen beloved old people change utterly. Prudishness about Poor Tom's trouser-lessness, quibbles about clarity of diction, jaded comments about Edmond's hard-to-fathom villainy (Iago's "motiveless malignity" anyone?) miss the point. Here in Sydney in 2015, I cried when Cordelia's lifeless body was carried on by her wailing, inconsolable parent. The supporting players are barely sketched: but isn't that how it goes in Shakespeare? Everyone else is simply a foil to the grand drama of the foolish demanding father, the lost soul upon the heath, just as Othello and Shylock dominate their respective tragedies. The theatrical pay-off surely is that the character of Lear is so thoroughly human, so presciently psychological, in a play written hundreds of years before Freud. This was a larrikin Lear for contemporary Australian audiences. Rush displayed an absolute commitment to honouring each emotional moment, whether bathetic or emotionally searing. I feel lucky to have seen it.

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