Friday, December 1, 2023



Petronella van Tienen as Fool and Karen Vickery as Lear

King Lear by William Shakespeare. 

Directed by Joel Horwood. Echo Theatre. The Q Theatre. Queanbeyan Performing  Arts Centre. November 30- December  2023. Bookings 62856290

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


IKaren Vickery as Queen Lear. Lainie Hart as Goneril

It is often customary for great actors at the height of their art to take on the challenge of performing the role of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Legendary British actors like Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, John Gielgud and Glenda Jackson have accepted the challenge under the direction of such esteemed directors as Peter Brook, Peter Hall and Tyrone Guthrie.In Australia John Bell towered as the tortured foolish old man in Barrie Kosky’s idiosyncratic production. It is not surprising then that Canberra’s leading actor, Karen Vickery should attempt to scale the heights of this daunting and challenging role. It could be considered even more challenging that the role of the foolish, old king who divides his kingdom amongst his daughters depending on which of them can profess the greater love should be played by a female. More than that, the production is being staged by fledgling director Joel Horwood (Hayfever). It is imperative that they have an actor of the calibre of Vickery to rake on the eponymous role. Horwood is an alumni of the highly regarded West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and one of Canberra’s finest actors. However, directing Shakespeare’s arguably most unwieldy tragedy is another matter and it is the inherent dichotomy in this Echo Theatre’s production that causes  concern.

Lewis McDonald as Edmund. Josh Wiseman as Edgar

There is no doubt that Horwood has assembled an excellent cast and none more so than Vickery in the role of a queen whose ego and vanity embody the fatal flaw that sets her on the path to irrational judgement and madness.  Vickery gives an amazing performance of depth and complexity. From the moment that she rejects the loyal Cordelia with vitriolic irrationality to her railing against the elements upon the torrential heath to her subjection to a demented mind, Vickery charts the descent into madness and the consequences of her hubris. Vickery’s performance is a catalogue of conflicting Elizabethan humours. The audience is invited to witness a queen in the throes of menopausal turmoil which should and does evoke pity for her condition. We watch in horror a woman who through a foolish act becomes a mother “more sinned against than sinning” It is a cause pity that could well be overlooked if a man were playing Lear.

Michael Sparks as Gloucester

Faced with an actor of the stature of Vickery, Horwood could well leave her to her own creative process, but even so, Horwood’s inexperience becomes apparent in the lack of cohesion in the motivations and actions of the principal characters. This is also not helped by the vastness of the space and the overly dark lighting design. It may cast a bleakness across the stage and depict a wasteland in which Nature holds full sway over the inner and outer psyche of the human condition but too often excellent actors were left to contend with a poor use of the space. Actors of the proven excellence of Natasha Vickery (Regan) and Lainie Hart (Goneril) were too often left to define their action upon the stage. Lewis McDonald looked and played the part of the evil Edmund but needed guidance to sway an audience to accept his justification for his resentment. There is the subtlety of complexity of the human motive that appeared lacking in staging and performance at times. It is confounded by a space that might have been avoided in a more intimate setting under more intentionally designed lighting design..

Only Josh Wiseman’s Edgar and Mad Tom surmounted the obstacles of the space and limited exploration of character that seemed to limit the full power of some other performances. From his appearance as a drunken youth to his feigned madness upon the heath, Wiseman’s performance stood out as a highlight in this production.

Josh Wiseman as Mad Tom

Paradoxically, it is the moments of intimacy that evoked pathos and empathy. Lear hugs the blinded Gloucester (Michael Sparks) in a tender moment of recognition and admission of their failing. We are moved and forgiving as Lear the mother cradles her dead child Cordelia (Petronella van Tienen). Vickery’s gut-wrenching howl of despair rents the air with Lear’s grief.

There is much to commend in Echo Theatre’s production, not the least Vickery’s interpretation and performance of a queen and a mother.  The themes of loyalty and betrayal,sibling rivalry,  love and hate and justice and injustice are clearly shown.  As Laurence Olivier writes in his autobiography  On Acting. “Shakespeare makes his actors work for their bread and butter” It is an observation that applies to cast and creatives on King Lear. I encourage all audiences to visit this bold and challenging production during its short season. It is not without its flaws but it is played with passion and intelligence and is certain to overcome the tentativeness of an opening night.

Photography - Photox - Canberra Photography Services