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Survival of the fittest in a bloody royal storm
I was lucky to see Melbourne Shakespeare Company's preview performance of King Lear at fortyfivedownstairs before lockdown. Directed by Ayesha Gibson the tale of King Lear is a long and bloody Shakespearean tragedy, not only about the demise of his ability to rule, but his family's greed for power and property, amidst a war between Britain and France.
King Lear played by Evelyn Krape - photo by Chelsea Neate
The Darwinian theory of 'Survival of the Fittest' is truly demonstrated in King Lear. Now I'm sure you know of other Shakespearean plays like MacBeth and Hamlet where royal leaders descend into madness. However, Lear's descent into dementia is a vehicle for dissenting patriots rather than a work of magic, a witches prophecy or a visit from a ghost.
People often fear watching a Shakespearean play as they find the language complex and the plots confusing. However, Gibson's direction provides great clarity with a contemporary twist. This is 'Shakespeare on speed', five acts delivered in 90 minutes with no interval and well-executed by cast and crew.
King Lear with Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar - photo by Chelsea Neate
Traditionally in Shakespeare's time, all characters were played by men. In Melbourne Shakespeare Company's production, a number of lead male roles are played by women, including King Lear (Evelyn Krape) and the Earl of Gloucester (Anthea Davis) and his son Edgar (Kayla Hamill). Interestingly, neither Lear nor Gloucester have wives - but they both have children.
King Lear is the ruler of Britain and decides to divide his kingdom into thirds for his three daughters Goneril (Claire Nicholls), Regan (Annabelle Tudor) and Cordelia (Isabella Ferrer). However, there is a catch - each daughter must profess their love and loyalty to him in the Royal Court of Britain.
Goneril and Regan both married, are able to charm their father with words and intellect. However, the youngest daughter Cordelia is unable to express her love for Lear in words - as she cannot lie like her sisters. As such, Lear divides his kingdom into two for Goneril and Regan and leaves Cordelia without a dowry and expels her from the palace into the arms of the enemy - the King of France (John Reed) who marries her. In this same moment, Lear seals his own fate to become an aging homeless person. This change in status is based on a spontaneous and rash lapse of reason, which surprises everyone in the court.
Goneril and Regan become concerned about their father's behaviour when they find him drinking and dancing with Fool (Don Bridges) and the Earl of Kent (Kevin Hopkins) unattended by his knights. This is an entertaining scene where Lear is dancing with Fool. The paradox is this fool 'see's all' and is playing along with Lear's madness. Fool in this production is both joker and confidant, entertainer and common person and mirror's Lear's words back to him, but it falls on deaf ears. Kent tried to challenge Lear on his rash decision and warns him of the consequences, but has now surrendered to his madness.
However, Lear discovers Goneril and Regan have dismissed 50 of the 100 knights which escort him, and without consultation. Lear begins to question his own sanity, and why he chose his narcissistic daughters Goneril and Regan, over Cordelia who he dearly loves, but dismissed from the palace without a penny. Husbands Albany (Augustin Tchantcho) and Cornwall (Jonathan Peck) are aware of Lear's demise and get ready to protect the palace from invasion by France and royal dissenters.
We then meet Edmund the 'bastard' son of Gloucester(Anthea Davis) and his brother Edgar (Kayla Hamill). Edmund (Matthew Connell) delivers a fabulous monologue on how he wishes to escape his 'bastard' label and prove his worth as royalty. Gloucester catches Edmund putting a letter in his pocket and demands to know what it says.
Edmund reveals to Gloucester that he found a letter written by Edgar which states if his father were to die, Edmund would receive half the inheritance. Gloucester is truly shocked that Edgar would wish death upon him.
Edmund casts doubt in Gloucester's mind as to Edgar's loyalty. Gloucester is worried this letter confirms a prophecy about a 'son against his father' and asks Edmund to seek out Edgar and put a stop to the 'villiany'.
Edgar (Kayla Hamill) disguised as 'Tom' - photo by Chelsea Neate
In turn Edmund warns Edgar of a plan to kill their father Gloucester and as he is next in line to the throne Edgar may be the next victim. Edgar obeys Edmund's instructions to disguise himself and flee from the palace until the war is over. Edgar discusses himself as 'Tom' a commoner and seeks refuge in the country near Dover.
With Edgar's absence Edmund can now deploy his devious plan to rise from royal 'bastardry' to royal 'legitimacy'.
Meanwhile, Goneril instructs her steward Oswald (Andrew Dang) to not let Lear take up residence in 'her' palace as she can no longer cope with his madness.
As suspected Lear, Fool and Kent (in disguise) try to enter the palace. Oswald refuses them as instructed. The Fool turns 'truth teller' and breaks out into poetry to foretell Lear of what fate is coming. Goneril enters and Lear confronts her demanding she takes care of him and demands she reinstate his 100 knights. Albany her husband professes his loyalty to Lear and seems unaware of Goneril's actions. Goneril dismisses Lear and the Fool and summons Oswald to deliver an urgent letter to her sister Regan.
Meanwhile Edmund draws blood to make it look like he has been attacked by someone seeking to kill Gloucester. Goneril and Regan capture Gloucester and accuse him of treason and torture him by removing both of his eyes so he is blind. This is a gory and stomach-wrenching scene and you cannot but feel fear and injustice for Gloucester who is devoted to Lear.
Edmund makes a pact with Goneril to marry her after Albany is murdered. As the war between Britain and France escalates, Regan is widowed as Cornwall is killed in battle and Edmund also makes a pact to marry her. This secures Edmund's chances of becoming King, however, his affections lie with Goneril more than Regan.
King Lear and Edgar, disguised as 'Tom' (Kayla Hamill) - photo by Chelsea Neate
Edgar finds Gloucester roaming out on the moors, ready to take his own life on the cliffs of Dover. Edgar takes care of his father and reunites him with Lear who realises the mistake he has made by giving the kingdom to Goneril and Regan.
Edgar comes into possession of a letter from Goneril to Edmund pledging her love and disguised as 'Tom' gives it to Albany. Realising Goneril is plotting to kill him to marry Edmund, Albany confronts Goneril with the letter, and it is revealed Edmund had killed Cornwall to marry Regan and become King . However, Goneril has poisoned Regan and she dies. Goneril is then murdered and Cordelia is hanged Lear receives the dead bodies of all his three daughters. Oswald kills Edmund and only one 'madman' remains - Lear.
Did his madness aid his survival? At what cost?
It seems nothing can kill this man but his sorrow and grief, and the biggest tragedy is Lear destroys everything he built, including his family and kingdom.
King Lear cast - photos by Jack Dixon-Gunn
As an audience member identifying as female, watching a female play Lear I pondered what difference gender made to the character or interpretation of the character. I found Krape's strong performance as a person of power was not bound to gender, but to her skill and experience as an actor. I questioned whether I would banish my youngest daughter so unfairly, in the same circumstances and in a position of immense power.
Secondly, regardless of gender identity, when are you perceived to be 'mad' simply because your body is aging? Do people stop listening to you, simply because your body is old, even though your mind may still be young? Through this casting decision, Gibson has chosen to challenge the audience's perception of the relationship between gender, age, power and strength.
There are several times when Lear is violent, shows aggression and his behaviour is hard to handle - which is typical of a warlord of his time, but also indicative of the toll dementia can take on the brain in terms of behavioural controls.
The stage design by Hayley James creates Lear's palace like a contemporary office, with solid wooden furniture and a sea of ergonomic office chairs that act as a barrier or 'drawbridge' to the world outside the palace. Several wheelbases of these chairs are hung from the ceiling like candelabra, which is a creative and clever answer to mixing the 'old' establishment with the 'new' leadership of Goneril and Regan.
The fantastic storm scene is created by the excellent sound design of Ben Keene and lighting design of Alex Blackwell, and really makes us fear sorry for the mad Lear walking around the moors, naked and drenched - but he survives regardless. The costume design by Aislinn Naughton uses colour to define the different families, which makes it easier for the audience to follow the plot and subplots, and who belongs to whom.
There are some brilliant fight and battle scenes choreographed by John Reed, and these are executed brilliantly in a confined space with a large cast and add excitement to the performance.
The cast has worked hard to deliver this 90-minute production very well with standout performances from Evelyn Krape as Lear, Don Bridges as Fool, Matthew Connell as Edmund, Augustin Tchantcho as Albany and Anthea Davis as Gloucester.
It's unfortunate the Melbourne coronavirus circuit breaker lockdown has put a pause on this production - but it was a sold-out season - and definitely worth seeing if there is a remount.