Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A reflection on “Lear” by Helen Musa


Vickery as Lear. Photo Josh McTackett

“King Lear”, directed by Joel Horwood for Echo Theatre, at The Q, Queanbeyan, closed December 3.

JOEL Horwood’s recently closed production of “King Lear” at The Q was the eighth staged version of Shakespeare's tragedy that I have witnessed.

I have seen actors Ron Graham and Garry McDonald playing their roles in prehistoric bearskins, Judy Davis in the traditional doubling of The Fool and Cordelia, and the much-excoriated 1998 post-modern Barrie Kosky production where John Bell as Lear was seen dementing in the waiting room of a bus station.

Horwood’s production is easily the most convincing of these, and viewed on the same weekend as a concert of Bach’s Advent cantatas, it had me reflecting on why the classics are so important, not just for the brilliance of the creations, but for their sheer humanity.

So thrilling was Horwood’s production to me that it pretty well converted me from being a lifelong “Hamlet” fan to believing that “Lear” is indeed the Bard’s master work – it's also his maddest.

Shakespeare's King Lear is notoriously, difficult to stage, so much so that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was of the opinion that some parts of it couldn’t be done.

Horwood seemingly met all the challenges inherent in this dark tragedy, yet he exposed the raw edges of the drama in such a comprehensive way so that the long evening went by in the blink of an eye.

Of course, the painful parts to which Coleridge alluded were there, and much more.

The machinations of the hypocritical daughters Goneril and Regan, savagely indifferent when they cast Lear out into the wilderness, was articulated loud and clear by Lainie Hart and Natasha Vickery respectively.

The Iago-like self-justifications of Edmund the bastard as he plans the downfall of his legitimate brother, Edgar (Josh Wiseman), is given a nasty comic edge by Lewis McDonald.

The revolting blinding of Gloucester (Michael Sparks) as a punishment for perceived treachery drew gasps from the audience.

And the bit Coleridge couldn't stand where Lear holds the dead Cordelia in his arms is indeed almost too painful to view.

Balanced against this in the play is evidence of light and nobility. There is Edgar for Edmund, Cordelia for Goneril and Regan, Kent for Oswald, Albany for Cornwall.

At the centre of this almost insane play, unlike anything else Shakespeare ever wrote, is the towering presence of Karen Vickery as  Lear, a powerful, vulnerable performance as the arrogant, emotionally blind king who begins, too late, to see the origins of his fate. Vickery takes on Lear’s silly regal posturing, insane ravings and insightful judgements with equal fearlessness.

Supporting him tenderly in his most insane moments, is Petronella van Tienen’s Fool, doubling as Cordelia, a theatrical convention started by Shakespeare himself when he gave Lear the plaintive Act V lines, “And my poor fool is hanged.”

Director Joel Horwood has pursued the text with fine detail through the smaller roles, like the servant who stands up against Cornwall when he has gouged the eyes out of Gloucester. The detail of these parts was very fine.

This production looked good with regal black drapes transformed into billowing winds and the upstage cyclorama revealed in Act V to be the White Cliffs of Dover, where the play concludes.

Horwood and Vickery have, in what to me was a complete breath of fresh air, given me a new understanding of what the word tragedy can mean.