King Lear photo (c) The Bacchanals

king lear
by william shakespeare


Lucid, perceptive and stimulating

For a moment the sound of John Lennon warbling A Day in the Life - "I read the news today oh boy" - seems to trivialise the tragedy we have just witnessed over three compelling hours. Except there is nothing trivial about the news these days. It's full of global, national and domestic tragedy. And the choice we are invariably faced with is to shrug it off as yet another atrocity/ disaster/ calamity, or try to understand why it happened in the hope we can honour our natural desire to declare, "Never again!"
            At the end of Shakespeare's King Lear, as the disenfranchised but wiser ex-king expires amid the bodies of all three daughters - two dead at each other's hands, the other hanged in gaol before her reprieve came through - Edgar's epilogue offers the moral: "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." And there we have it: failure to speak truly, and to value truth above flattery or fear, is what has precipitated these tragic outcomes.
            If the King had not lapped up the loving platitudes of his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, and failed to perceive the honesty in Cordelia's inability to ape their hypocrisy, he would not have lost his kingdom, status and reason for being to the venal forces of greed, lust and indifference. Only by being stripped of all his wealth and power, has he been able to achieve true wisdom, albeit too late and in a way that makes him fear he's lost his mind.
            The paradox has everything to do with why this truth endures. As the notice outside the Te Whaea auditorium says, "people susceptible to existential angst may find this play disturbing".
            Once more director David Lawrence - whose Bacchanals combine forces and resources with Dunedin's Fortune Theatre for this production - has aligned his cast to a clear and intelligent rendition of a Shakespeare play, produced simply, with flair and a focused energy born of a deep-set love for the work. Given their loss, one week into rehearsal, of Edward Petherbridge - who arrived from the UK to play the title role after months of long-distance pre-productive development, only to be taken ill and return home - I was prepared to make allowances. But there is no evidence that adversity has taken its toll. Quite the opposite, in fact.
            Despite an absurdly short rehearsal time, Mick Rose (who played the role nearly 20 years ago at university, then played Kent in a more recent production) commands our empathy as he takes us on King Lear's epic journey. Rather than play the despot getting his come-uppance, Rose brings an endearing Everyman quality to the role from the moment he is led in blindfold by his daughters to his surprise birthday party (an inspired opening image) and accepts their adulation as of right, through his dismay and anger at Cordelia's defiance, and his increasing ill-treatment at the hands of Goneril and Regan and their husbands, to his cathartic brainstorm on the blasted heath and the strange equilibrium he arrives at, only to have it shattered by the deaths of his daughters.
            Having brought great inner strength and resolve to the circumspect Cordelia, Erin Banks excels even more as the king's fearlessly loquacious Fool, convincing us that even the most impenetrable utterances embody profound wisdom. A dog-collar and rope lead, well employed to capture the nature of the Fool's loyalty, prove an awfully apt set up for the noose around Cordelia's neck at the end. (I think I'm right in saying this doubling replicates the casting in Shakespeare's original all-male company.)
            As the oldest daughter, Goneril, Amy Tarleton makes elder abuse, husband hatred and lust for bad boys (the bastard Edmund) seem entirely natural, while Phil Grieve, as the Duke of Albany, progresses clearly from compliant husband to his own man, taking military action somewhat too late to right the wrongs he has been complicit in.
            Jacqueline Nairn's Regan is chillingly convincing in her professions of love, her resistance to Lear and his retinue cluttering her home, and her blood lust punishment of those who question her actions - abetted by her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, who is positively (if that's the word) psychotic as portrayed by Alistair Browning.
            The blinding of Gloucester is as shocking, if not more so, than any of the many I have seen, not least because the theatrical spectacle does not eclipse the all-too-believable motives behind it.
            In dramatic counterpoint to Lear's story, the Duke of Gloucester's misguided faith in his conniving bastard son Edmund, to the detriment of his legitimate son Edgar, is vividly enacted by Bruce Phillips, Alex Greig and Sam Snedden respectively, although Snedden has yet to nail the whys and wherefores of Edgar's self-protecting 'Poor Tom' persona. (As a recent graduate of Toi Whakaari, it is surprising that he is the only one who has not found the pitch of the Te Whaea space, rendering much of Poor Tom unintelligible.)
            Grieg's bright-eyed delight at being the bastard is a refreshing change from the dark moroseness with which the role is often played, in that he demands we step back from a natural inclination to side with his enthusiasm and instead apply more objective moral standards to his behaviour.
            Phillips navigates Gloucester's journey from confident man, bragging with Kent about the sport that was had at the conceiving of Edmund, to the blinded man who now sees where he went wrong, with consummate skill. His scene with Lear on the beach - redolent, somehow, of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot - is memorable and touching, as it should be.
            Malcolm Murray does a fine job as the Earl of Kent, whose earthy, no-nonsense masculinity and integrity sees him survive, along with Edgar, where others don't. While Salesi Le'ota tends to over-declaim his lines, he excels in non-verbal communication of the natures and motives that drive both the King of France and Oswald, Goneril's self-serving steward.
            David Goldthorpe completes this wondrously aligned ensemble with full commitment to a range of roles. Everyone plays Knights and Soldiers as required, with a simple colour-coding system of green, red, blue and white leaving us in no doubt as to who belongs to which faction.
            One thing that especially struck me with this production was how meaningful it becomes that people tend to be recognised according to their position rather than who they really are. Usually we just have to accept, as theatrical convention, that people become incognito just because they change their clothes. But here, when despite fearing he's losing his mind Lear finally recognises people for who they are, a core theme of the play is revealed.
            I was expecting to say that after this very brief Wellington 'out of town tryout' that the production will likely come into its own when performed in a fully designed set at The Fortune in Dunedin. And no doubt some aspects will evolve and improve. But nothing about what we've seen in Wellington suggests this is anything but a fully realised, lucid, perceptive and stimulating production of a great classic.
- John Smythe, theatreview.org


Satisfying conquest of theatrical peak

To perform King Lear has been described as the theatrical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. From the moment rehearsals started this production was beset with difficulties and David Lawrence and his Bacchanals company must have felt that they would never even reach base camp.
            It is good to report - and without making allowances for their problems - that this Lear is the best cast, best spoken, most expansive and professional of all The Bacchanals' forays into Renaissance tragedy.
            And none of The Bacchanals' trademarks are missing: simplicity, speed, multi-period costumes, attention to detail and careful analysis of the text, not to mention daring and sometimes gauche directorial touches.
            It begins with a family celebration and Lear playing Blind Man's Bluff before he blindly gives away his kingdom to his daughters. The tragedy ends with a line from a Beatles song to ram home the point that the play is still relevant.
            But Lear and Gloucester's journeys (suitcases are important props throughout) to self-awareness and an understanding of love and morality are told with a directness that is compelling and in the case of Gloucester's blinding we are presented with blood-filled horror, which at one performance caused an audience member to faint.
            At the start Mick Rose, who took on the role of Lear at very short notice indeed, looks far too young and sane to say 'let me not be mad' and be described as old before his time. Lear's terrible imprecations to Goneril and Regan seem simply spiteful rather than a mind out of control.
            But once Lear is on the heath and battling the storm and the one in his mind he is most impressive and his scene with the blind Gloucester is a lovely intimate conversation between two suffering old men. He rises beautifully to the challenge of the final scene and is most moving.
            It makes a great deal of sense to have an actor double the roles of Cordelia and the Fool. Both characters tell Lear the truths he does not want to hear and it is clear that Lear sees them at the end as one.
            As Cordelia Erin Banks is the honest daughter. As the Fool, with a rope around her neck like a leash, she is superb, quite the best Fool I have seen. It is also a marvellous touch for the Fool to bear mute, horrified witness to Gloucester's blinding.
            There is firm support from Bruce Phillips's Gloucester (the Dover cliff scene is especially well performed with Sam Snedden as a quietly spoken - too quietly at times - Edgar), Malcolm Murray's Kent (an honest Kiwi farmer), Alex Greig’s Edmund (a charming psychopath), and Amy Tarleton and Jacqueline Nairn as the two evil sisters.
            Alistair Browning is bit too much the Victorian villain as Cornwall (if he had a moustache he would have been twirling it) but his fury and abandon during the blinding scene make it both realistic and unbearable, while Albany's eventual change of heart towards the end is made believable by Phil Grieve.
            By the time the production reaches Dunedin it will have grown even more in stature and deserves full houses for its season there.
- Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post



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