King Lear: an O without a figure

Sydney Theatre Company at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

C16th gold crownKing Lear is a Titan of a play, but it is not a play of one man. It may appear to be one of those classics entirely focused on a single protagonist, but in fact there are many large, meaty roles to attract and challenge superb actors. Of course the immensity of its thematic, not to mention verbal, scope makes it practically impossible for the whole of a production to work at top pitch. There will always be soaring moments and dipping ones. A vision on a grand scale, securely shared by the artists, however, will allow the audience to immerse itself in the momentum of the piece, and swoop along with it, through the ups and downs. To achieve something like that this production is going to need time to grow into all its corners. For the STC, with Armfield directing, there is no reason why every single role should not be filled out by a riveting, virtuoso performance, but early in the run that is not what is here.

There are two core problems with this production that put the actors in a position where they are working to overcome, rather than working on the job of acting. One is a casting issue, where the balance falls too far on the side of comic figures. The second is the set. Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield have been an excellent team for decades, and I have no problem with Rush’s clownish traits coming into play in what may seem an unexpected forum. Shakespeare was above almost everything else into blending comedy and tragedy, often in very discomforting ways. But if you have a Lear who is a tragic clown, he needs to be counterpoised with actors of other strengths. Max Cullen is a beloved figure in Australian theatre, but also known mainly as a comic actor. Casting him as Gloucester against Rush’s Lear was always going to make him Lear’s shadow, even were he not struggling with the demands of major stage work, as he is. It was fun to see a blackly comic Regan in Helen Thompson, but it added one more block on the comedy side of the comedy/tragedy scale, that was already tipping too far one way. Albany and Cornwall went for nothing, when these can be powerful, commanding roles. In the end, only Jacek Koman (who can do no wrong. Really, this guy is awesome on stage.) as Kent and Helen Buday as Goneril are giving masterfully tragic performances.

Much of the falling-short must be laid at the feet of the set designer. Stripping away may work in a black-box theatre or one with plenty of texture built into the space, but it is a horrible thing to do to actors performing in a cavernous, deep rectangle. In the interview with Armfield published in the program the director spends quite some time talking about the concept behind the set, and unfortunately he sounds less as if he is enthusing, and more trying to convince himself and us: “He never trained as a theatre designer and it’s as if all the work we’ve done has been about how much you can take out of the space and still tell the story.” The answer to the question is “less than you did.” Actors need a space that large to be broken up, so they can move from one moment into another. Armfield goes on to say, “And is there a correlation between the taking away of visual distraction and the clarity of the story?” No. A story does not become clearer by giving the actors nothing to work with, it becomes clearer when anything that is on the stage has work to do. Putting nothing there but a pair of cheap black rehearsal-room chairs just looks like a poverty of imagination, as if the designer and director had no ideas, and abandoned the actors to figure it out for themselves. This is particularly so when in group scenes actors who were not in on the action seemed to have been directed not to move or react. It is an unusual take from Armfield, who has proven himself so good with actors and with large ensembles. This came through in certain shining moments. The scene of Lear’s encounter with Gloucester was mesmerising, his arguments with Goneril, when they are both at their most articulate and furious, were terrifying, and any time at which he and Eryn Jean Norvill’s Cordelia slowed down to really look at each other was touching.

When responding to this production I almost find myself reporting on my original excitement at going to it rather than to the production itself, talking about how wonderful it was to see Geoffrey Rush so close. I suspect this will be one of those productions that is better towards the end of its run, and that the actors will grow to inhabit their roles, and come to assimilate the language into their bodies and minds. At present the figures still need find their way towards filling the wooden O.

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