Bell Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ returns the play to its past

Bell Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ returns the play to its past
Image: Robert Menzies as King Lear. Photo supplied. Credit: Brett Boardman

Shakespeare’s bleakest of plays, King Lear, is at once about the fall of a mythical king, and a warning to more than a few world leaders today as it examines the isolation brought on by extreme power, the craving of adulation and flattery all mixed in with the outcomes brought about by rash decision making.

In Bell Shakespeare’s first staging of Lear in 10 years, director Peter Evans grounds the play firmly in its pagan past where the players have an almost elemental connection to the cosmos but one which is overwhelmed by the temporal actions of greed and betrayal brought about by one man’s descent into madness.

Coupled with this is an acute examination of the roles of inheritance and primogeniture and how that affects the family and state.

Evans has staged King Lear with a cast of eleven, many cast members in multiple or gender-swapped roles.

The cast initially appear in uniform black costumes on a stage set in the round before assuming formless smocks denoting status and character changes.

With the stage devoid of sets other than stools and later, Lear’s bed, it means that all focus is on the characters, and none more so than that of King Lear (Robert Menzies) himself.

In Act 1, scene 1, Lear steps into a meeting between Gloucester, Edmund and Kent, all eyes are drawn to Menzies’ portrayal of a king already divorcing reality and reason.

Menzies’ use of hand tremors, unkempt hair and a steely gaze marks a strong presence as he makes the proclamation to divide his kingdom into three for his daughters while demanding that they in turn proclaim their love for him, setting in train one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

While Menzies is the focus in what will be regarded as one of the great interpretations of King Lear, this is an evenly matched cast who all excel as their roles flip and change, deftly navigating Shakespeare’s complex character analyses and plot developments.

However, some confusion was created by the uniform, featureless costumes, and further befuddlement came when those speaking became inaudible as they faced away from one quarter of the audience in the round.

Before Cornwall (Michael Wahr) plucks out Gloucester’s (James Lugton) eyes he is blind to his failure to keep his own house in order and falls prey to his son and heir Edgar’s (Alex King) evil plotting against him.

King also plays France and excels in her other role as the mad beggar Poor Tom who reflects Lear’s descent further into madness.

King Lear
Lizzie Schebesta, Shameer Birges and Darius Williams in ‘King Lear’. Image supplied. Credit: Brett Boardman

Lear’s daughters Goneril (Lizzie Schebesta) and Regan (Tamara Lee Bailey) at first appear loyal, even when flattering the ailing king, but soon display their split loyalties along with those of their husbands, while Melissa Kahraman is impressive in her dual roles of the hapless younger Cordelia and the wise, if sometimes erratic Fool.

Shameer Birges as Albany is commanding as he navigates his role leading the British Army in its fight against the French.

Jeremy Campese also engages in his dual roles as Oswald and Burgundy, who rejects Cordelia when he learns that she has no dowry.

The villain Edmund is played by Darius Williams with the right amount of duality to suggest that he is not all bad, while Janine Watson’s Kent is the one person loyal to Lear.

Peter Evans has kept this production tight and trim while focusing on the characters and their interactions with each other as a complex plot unfolds.

Credit must go to Nigel Poulton for his tense and realistic fight choreography, which is highlighted with the intense swordplay between Edgar and Edmund.

Anna Tregloan’s costumes work well with the minimal in the round set to place emphasis on the characters and the text, while lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne provides moments of real fear and excitement, particularly in the storm scene.

Once again Max Lyandvert has delivered a great score for a Bell Shakespeare production.

Peter Evans has given Robert Menzies the platform on which his reputation as one of our great stage actors is assured, while being supported by a cast and crew with great depth of talent.

This production of King Lear is set out of our time but also very much for these times.

Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear
The Neilson Nutshell, Pier 2/3
June 14-July 20

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