February 20, 2010

Royal Ruin

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse. November 5.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Unlike the other Shakespearean heavyweights, Lear is the tragedy of a kingdom, not an individual. When the old man makes the fateful decision to divide jurisdiction of his land, he sunders it – and all hell breaks lose. When the power is fragmented it turns against itself. Legitimacy is replaced by civil strife, the chain of being is catastrophically overturned.

In State Theatre’s production , director Adam Cook focuses on the domestic aspects of the play –  even using the tag “be careful who you listen to” in his publicity. Of course, the theme of Cordelia and her Ugly Sisters is important, as is Lear’s grave miscalculation about his daughters and his closest allies, but there is a larger cosmic dimension which a successful performance needs also to fully  explore.

From the opening scene the world in this production is writ small. Victoria Lamb’s décor, with its high curved tiled wall, might depict the tragic scale of the play but the costumes suggest mere boardroom melodrama. The design mix –  of Edwardian military tunics, town hall regalia, tweedy country house and nineties  power dressing styles – fails to match the primal scheme of things. King Lear is about something rotten at the core of human nature, not a kerfuffle about a tranche of stocks and shares in a family trust.

But while the central narrative threads do not always register, a number of sections do.  After an uncertain start, dressed in school blazer and gormless spectacles, Nathan O’Keefe’s Edgar is memorably presented – both in his piteous unaccommodated state as Poor Tom and as the figure of enduring virtue which the kingdom desperately needs at play’s end. O’Keefe’s performance is one of a number which commend this production. Michael Habib  does well as the steadfast Kent, Dennis Olsen brings dignity to the cruelly blinded Gloucester and Sarah Snook, despite some flickering diction, captures the simplicity of Cordelia’s devotion and, and (despite the out of place vaudeville glitz of her costume) capably navigates the often obscure speech of The Fool)

Of the villains – Renato Musolino is disturbing as the eye-gouging Cornwall,  and the sisters Goneril and Regan ( Victoria Longley and Martha Lott) become ever more vehement, before unraveling  in the final scenes. As the bastard Edmund, Renato Fabretti is full of sound and fury but, ultimately, unconvincing.

In casting second year drama students for crowd scenes and small roles, Adam Cook has provided them with valuable stage opportunities – but it is a miscalculation. Their evident inexperience and vocal limitations add further jitters to an already scattered production.

The choice of John Gaden to return to a role he played previously  on the Dunstan stage in 1988 is quite another matter. I reviewed that performance on its first night  and while Gaden was in good form, this time around he has found an authority and emotional connection that is even more impressive. His fulminations on Cordelia, and the white rage of his serpent’s tooth speech to Goneril are proof of the dragon’s wrath.  The storm, all cataracts and hurricanoes, brings down both Lear and décor, the mad scenes are ring-a-rosies of riddling, and the speeches – first with the dying Gloucester, and then the carelessly hanged Cordelia – are compelling in their plainness, and tragic in their extremity.

1 Comment »

  1. I love your commentary on King Lear done in rhyme. You ctpruae the spirit of the play along with the lyricism of Shakespeare’s language. King Lear is my favorite of his tragedies. The interaction between King Lear and the Fool make the play for me.

    Comment by Hilda — December 1, 2015 @ 11:13 am

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