Sunday, December 3, 2023

Theatre / “King Lear”, directed by Joel Horwood. At The Q, until December 3. Reviewed by JOE WOODWARD.


Karen Vickery as Lear. Photo: Jenny Wu

OFTEN mooted as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Echo Theatre’s production of “King Lear” proved to be less a tragedy and more of a deeply psychological drama.

Karen Vickery’s performance plunged into a varied psychological plane I hadn’t seen in any previous production, including Warren Mitchell’s magnificent stage performance in the 1970s and the filmed performances of Paul Scofield in the Peter Brook 1971 film.

The bare stage provided the perfect space for complexity and a breadth of relationships that melded human vanities into threads of uncompromising action.

Vickery’s Lear was the spine that took her audience on a compelling journey from the illusory trappings of power to the discovery of human significance through a startling relationship discovered with another human being.

This was most evident in a beautifully constructed and played scene when Lear met up with her daughter Cordelia for the first time since banishing her in the opening scenes. Now in a wheelchair, Lear’s mind is shot. She has been through the depths of psychological pain and physical breakdown.

Both mother and daughter have survived the consequences of their respective arrogance and now have let go of all that restricted them. Petronella van Tienen’s Cordelia creates a soulful avenue for Lear to enter into a more fundamental humanity; their highly emotional connection evoked on stage was as pure and as heart wrenching as one could ever see in theatre.

Vickery’s vocal and physical dexterity on stage gave Lear a versatile and highly energetic vitality that denied the more usual “infirmity of his age”. The physical hysteria she created then gave way to near total exhaustion, only to be revived for a few minutes towards the very end of the play.

The other older character of Gloucester, played by Michael Sparks, is savagely and physically broken down to an ironically saved person. His journey plunges him to the depths of a dark world through which he finally sees the reality of his life and of those around him.

Sparks never overplays the melodramatic circumstances of Gloucester’s situation. His imposed and then guided journey provides a stark contrast to Lear’s self-imposed journey of discovery.

Lewis McDonald’s Edmund has fun with the devilish plans he reveals to avenge his sense of abandonment by his father. He extracts maximum value from his sharing of plans with the audience.

Josh Wiseman’s Edgar provides the linking of the main plot with the subplot of the play. He manages this with controlled theatricality throughout a most intriguing arc.

Lainie Hart’s Goneral and Natasha Vickery’s Regan merge into villains. They play very contrasting sisters who both want the same things. Both are ruled by lust and self-interested power. Yet Hart and Vickery found nuances in performance that gradually made their decline feasible and real.

All performances supported the construction of a genuinely significant production of “King Lear”.

Christina Falsone, Jim Adamik, Tom Cullen, Glenn Brighenti and Holly Ross sculpted the stage and echoed the central themes of the play efficiently and without any clutter. The professionalism of the whole cast made for a compelling presentation of a very difficult play.

On opening night perhaps there were some losses of momentum in the long first half before interval; though it recovered quickly. Considering the power of the performances, the use of toy knives seemed incongruent with the violence portrayed. Something more threatening or even more symbolic might have been used instead to give vent to the shocking events. However, this is a minor point in relation to the whole play.

Vickery’s Lear is a triumphant revelation of deeply psychological motivations, feelings and responses that are embedded in the text but which have rarely been extracted.

Echo Theatre’s “King Lear” cuts through to the psychological essence within a story. It avoided over-simplifying the actions into a linear narrative that neglected the vertical dimensions of human behaviour. This required exquisite performance skills from the cast and director making this production a high point for Echo Theatre.

This review was first published in Canberra CityNews on December 1, 2023.