The Shadow King

Malthouse Theatre at the Carriageworks

The version of King Lear brought by Malthouse to the Sydney Festival shows the rewards that are there for giving this giant of a play enough time and resources to discover new ways of speaking its messages. The company of artists led by Director Michael Kantor and lead actor and co-creator Tom E. Lewis make a point of saying that this piece is called The Shadow King so ‘purists’ won’t be upset that it is not King Lear in its original form, but it does the work a disservice not to acknowledge what a brilliant telling of this ‘white man’s dreamtime story’ they have delivered. Coming to this performance knowing King Lear illuminates both what Shadow King is attempting, and a good deal that is new about its venerated source material. This work should get the credit it deserves for developing into areas the original neglects, and for using aspects of the original in ways that carry a different yet just as valid and vital meaning.

Lear in white jacket and gold paper crown, surrounded by three women in  tropical print skirts.

Photo by Prudence Upton

An illustration of how a meaning can change and yet still be ingeniously ‘right’ lies in the way the fundamental nature of Lear’s mistake is different in this version. In the original his fault is to abdicate authority, here it is to abdicate responsibility. This Cordelia upbraids him for more than vanity, and for a different kind of recklessness. Her concern with his self-centredness is not that it seeks to isolate his daughters from other relationships, but that it will result in harm to the land he should be treating as a sacred trust, not a source of material wealth. Similarly, the fool shows this Lear that he has lost who he is, not because he has ceased to be in charge, but because he has ceased to feel the love for his country that is his core (here very closely identified with Cordelia). The position Cordelia represents, as the one who understands and clings to the value of home and history, is much more significant in this version than in the original. This may mean we feel the gap in the writing of the character even more than we do watching King Lear, but that too is no bad thing. Audiences being satisfied by an inadequately developed Cordelia is a problem, noticing her absence is valuable.

It is enjoyable to see Edmund, Goneril and Regan fleshed out at the point in the narrative when in the original they begin to become caricatured villains. This brings out an aspect of the original that rarely gets acknowledged: that for the first few scenes Goneril is completely reasonable with her abusive father. We see that more clearly here, when Goneril tells her father angrily not to bring his drunken mob into the little house where her children are sleeping. Are we really going to say she was wrong? But what does that then make of the fool, already being disparaging of Goneril? The relationships are complicated by the adaptation, and that is a great strength.

There were times when the radio miking of the voices didn’t quite hit the right balance, and seemed to blur rather than assist the diction. This made more apparent the varying degrees of strength in the actors’ voices, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. However, the integration of music probably made the miking necessary, and this was so important to the overall feel of the piece that it could not be done without. I have seen many productions that incorporate a variety of languages, but never as organically as it felt here. The listed languages include Yolngu Matha, forms of “Torres Strait Creole” and “Baard”. The constant slipping from Shakespeare’s words to paraphrases of original speeches, to portions entirely in the language of the region represented had the effect of making every line feel urgent and necessary. There was sonic beauty in the delivery, but equally there was the conviction that comes with the actors’ investment in the choice of how to express a moment.

The absence of representation of the storm, in these circumstances, is a missed opportunity. There are all kinds of things that exist in the original Lear that function in new and fascinating ways in communication with Indigenous stories. Lear’s cursing of Goneril, for example, feels less like impotent rage and more like someone who expects to cause real harm. A British king walking into the open and tearing off  the gaudy trappings of his office is clearly mad. An Aboriginal elder doing the same might just as easily be reclaiming his sanity. Certainly, he is not ‘brought low’ in these new circumstances. He was at his lowest when yelling at his daughters, and his night in the bush is part of his renewal of dignity, not a necessary penance before the process of return.

This shift of meaning played out in Edgar, also, who disguised himself not as a simpleton, but more like a spirit or reminder of what the others have lost. Something of his own journey was weakened through taking this path, and his relationship with Gloucester (his mother, here) became more symbolic than personal, but a layer was added in ideas about where a person expelled from their family might look to find himself. Lear and Cordelia being sent to the lock-up, and the fool appearing with a noose around his neck to continue his role as narrator, because here the dead still speak, were images with a very particular resonance when embodied by a people who have suffered so disproportionately in these ways.

This seamless integration of the mundane literal and the spiritual and symbolic, the local and the expansive, the old text and a fresh response to it, made this work a captivating piece of theatre to watch. It also made it a genuinely important point in the history, not just of Australian theatre, but of performing King Lear.

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