Monday, December 7, 2015

King Lear

King Lear by William Shakespeare.

Directed by Neil Armfield. Set Design Robert Cousins. Costume Designer Alice Babidge. Lighting Nick Schlieper. Composer John Rodgers with Simon Barker and Phillip Slater. Sound Designer Stefan Gregory. The Roslyn Packer Theatre. Sydney Theatre Company  and Colonial First State Global Asset Management. November 28 2015 –  January 9 2016

Reviewer  Peter Wilkins


Geoffrey Rush as King Lear in Neil Armfield's production for Sydney Theatre Company
Photography by Heidrun Loehr


Shakespeare’s King Lear opens with the divestment of his kingdom, the abrogation of his regal responsibility and the wilful banishment of his most beloved daughter.  It is the catalyst to  consequence most catastrophic, the tragic decline of the noble hero, the essential flaw of the Aristotelian tragic figure. It is therefore a damning indictment of flawed reason, of family dysfunction, ruthless ambition, blind vanity and naked exposure to human failing.

Neil Armfield’s vision for the Sydney Theatre Company is bold, bare and resolute. It is raw in its humanity, mighty in its minimalism and magnificent in the clarity of its intent.  Shakespeare’s text on an open stage reverberates with irony and stark antithesis, - the  loyalty of Lear’s faithful Earl of Kent (Jacek Koman) and the treachery  of daughters Regan, (Helen Thomson) and Goneril (Helen Buday);  the wise utterances of The Fool (Robyn Nevin) and the vexatious outbursts of the foolish old man, his King (Geoffrey Rush); the honest  love of  Cordelia (Eryn Jean Norvill) and the false love of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund (Meyne Wyatt).
Geoffrey Rush as King Lear and Eryn Jean Norvill as Cordelia
Photography by Heidrun Loehr
On Armfield’s wild and wet heath in a brilliant exposure of staging on the Roslyn Packer stage, the feigned madness of the Earl of Gloucester’s legitimate and loyal son Edgar (Mark Leonard Winter), naked before the elements is confronted by The Fool’s ironic observances of Life’s absurdity, the shifting landscape of the mind of a King cast out and teetering upon the precarious precipice of reason and confusion. It is a scene of overwhelming symbolism, fiercely purgatory in its assault, stunningly unequivocal in its revelatory significance.  It offers a stunning contrast to the second half setting of Robert Cousins’ panoramic design. Epic in concept and visually striking in its intentional contrast, Cousins’ design, under Nick Schlieper’s uninhibited lighting design, provides a vast landscape of changing passions and conflicting motives.  From the Happy Birthday celebration at the commencement of the play and introduced by The Fool in the guise of Marilyn Monroe at Kennedy’s birthday celebration to the expansive cleansing whiteness of the cliffs of Dover as Edgar leads his blind father Earl of Gloucester  (Max Cullen) toward the imagined cliff’s edge, the open stage is a Pandora’s box of human vice, folly and virtue. At times amplified dialogue in the vastness of the open space becomes muffled and indistinct. Nevin’s swift punchlines, often accompanied by awkward accompaniment from musician Simon Barker in the Gallery box become lost. Cullen’s Gloucester too often loses words and the driving momentum of the gripping production and intense performances from the cast sacrificed significant text at the matinee.

The parallel plots that traverse Lear’s loss of reason and possible descent into fearful moments of madness are planets spinning about Shakespeare’s brilliantly shining Sun, the story of King Lear, his abrogation and tragic decline. I have seen great actors of our Time tackle this gargantuan role on stage and screen. Among them, Laurence Olivier in the tormented grip of veering confusion between clear reason and clouded madness, Paul Schofield in Peter Brook’s icy cold and snow bound landscape, Robert Stephens on Stratford’s Memorial Theatre stage at Stratford upon Avon, John Bell in Barrie Kosky’s idiosyncratic production in Canberra’s Playhouse and Ian Holm in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre of the England’s National Theatre. Geoffrey Rush in Neil Armfield’s logically inspired production is magnificent as a king “more sinned against than sinning”. His Lear is intensely human from his bitter and vexatious “ Better thou hadst not been born  Than not to have pleased me better”   to his heart wrenching howl as he enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms” we see a man wearing the guise not of a king, but possessed by the follies of the ordinary man.  We see his impulsive flashes of blind vanity, his gutted remorse, his awakened reason and his flashes of madness.  Some say Rush’s Lear lacks gravitas. I say that he holds the mirror up to Nature and through his purgation discovers truth beyond the madness of existence. It is no accident that tears stream from the audience’s face as Lear holds the glass to Cordelia’s mouth and gently breathes his last. Rush is a great Lear, because he grasps the true mettle of his king’s authentic humanity, his foolish acts and wise understandings, too late perhaps, but in good time to find respite in the grave.

Helen Thomson as Regan. Geoffrey Rush as King Lear. Robyn Nevin as The Fool
Colin Moddy and Nick Masters  in the background. Photo: Heidrun Loehr
Rush’s Lear finds good company in a cast carefully directed by Armfield’s sure and vividly theatrical directorial hand. Robyn Nevin’s Fool is the epitome of the wise comic, subtly admonishing with ambiguous wit. Nevin’s chameleon-like versatility conjures a character , so convincing in his down to earth, no nonsense, common sense clown. Mark Leonard Winter’s Mad Tom upon the blasted heath strips poor Edgar to Nature’s essential rawness in his feigned madness to survive.
Max Cullen as Earl of Gloucester and Geoffrey Rush as King Lear
Photo by Heidrun Loehr
Only Max Cullen’s Gloucester is lost in the shadows. The scene at Dover affords him some measure of empathy, but  incoherent diction and with his character somewhat diminished by the large open stage,the parallel subplot of Gloucester’s foolish gullibility pales somewhat in stature.

This Lear will linger for a very long time. Armfield’s touches of theatrical genius, such as the use of black makeup to depict death and the final assembly of the dead upon the stage, the visual and sensory intensity and realism of the drenched scene upon the heath and  Nick Schlieper’s  lighting of the second half of the play, bathing the stage in white, highlighting the representational symbolism of the piece and the cleansing power of just absolution for crime and flawed nature are powerful depictions of Shakespeare’s themes of Love, Time and Death.

I am told that tickets to this production can not be had for love or money. That is not surprising. This is a Lear that will last long in the memories of audiences who have seen it, not only because it is a powerful story about a foolish king, but because it is the moral tale of all humanity as told by outstanding actors of our time under Neil Armfield’s imaginative, inventive and intellectually enlightened direction .  Don’t give up hope. Keep trying for that available ticket or pray that Rush’s moving and powerfully human performance may find its way to the screen. Sydney Theatre Company’s King Lear merits such longevity.