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King Lear (the Old Fitz, Sydney)

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What is it with Shakespearean acting? Why is it so often unrelentingly anguished, or pointedly rapier-witted; shouted, or whispered? Why do so many thespians lapse into a physical vocabulary of choreographed cliches and fruity, overblown pronunciations that would embarrass Richard Burton? And that’s the trouble with director Richard Hilliar’s production of King Lear, staged, alternately, with Measure for Measure, with the same cast, for the rejigged Sydney Shakespeare Festival.

There are a couple of impressive things about the Sydney Shakespeare Festival. In years gone by it has done a sterling job of staging accessible outdoor renditions of Shakespeare’s comedies in all sorts of weather. And having the same cast prepped, meticulously, for two plays is a feat of near-biblical proportions. But taking it inside, and weathering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that Lear attracts, is a brave move indeed. Some might say mad, like the king himself. And I might be one of ’em.

The madness of staging King Lear reared its terrifying head early in this production. First, the set. What the hell was David Jeffrey thinking? What’s with the black bathroom tiles? And Rachel Scane’s costume design is an odd mix of suited-up civvies and para-military garb. It looks more than a little op shop. OK, it’s the bard on a budget, but c’mon.

Enter Kent, played by Roger Smith. Smith’s dedication to this cause has made him an indivisible part of the SSF. He clearly loves it. But his speech is impaired and it’s disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t matter. He does his best, but in concert with his wooden mannerisms it’s almost impossible to suspend disbelief and see him as a credible Kent. There’s something inexplicably Mr Beanish about Richard Mason’s Gloucester but he proves himself one of the better players, albeit too overwrought at times. Here, too, in the opening scene, is Gloucester’s much abused bastard son, a knave who came saucily into the world, Edmund, played with customary affectation, but also dignity and clarity, by Nick Hunter.

All hail to the king, played with obvious relish by Leof Kingsford-Smith, all bluster and vanity. He has the predictable demeanour of a right royal ragbag, but his very embrace of the character has traded-off diction and there are whole scenes in which, between roared angst, the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the space, unsympathetic sound design and a too voluble-by-half, raging storm, we need surtitles.

In other words, much of the play might as well have been in an alien tongue for all we get is strangulated text. I’m not suggesting every word needs to be over-enunciated in that very patronising style about which I’m liable to complain when I encounter it. I’m happy to forego a word or phrase, here and there. But thought needs to be applied to what can be thrown to the four winds and what must remain.

Incidentally the storm itself is well-handled and David Jeffrey’s lighting, Nate Edmondson’s sound and the windswept deportment of the cast create a suitable illusion.

Young Victorian College of the Arts grad James Townsend didn’t really convince me as the scheming Cornwall, while John Grinston, as his equivocating brother-in-law, Albany, while sporting an attractive timbre, was almost robotic in his disconcerting verbal and physical disposition. The lanky Alexander Spinks is a lightweight Lurch as Oswald, Goneril’s faithful servant. Kieran Foster’s Edgar, while fine in his disparate, designed-to-deceive guises, fails to integrate these facets into the one, devious character for the benefit. How much of this should be sheeted home to the actor and how much to the director is conjectural. Jasper Garner Gore’s Fool is a little too zealous, but shows plenty of craft.

The standouts in this production are the women: Danielle Baynes’ Cordelia is capable, persuading us of her unswerving integrity; Hailey McQueen is an efficiently cold-blooded Goneril, a Bronny Bishop-like wolf in sheep’s clothing; Amy Scott-Smith, with her piercing eyes and flesh-tearing intensity, makes for a rapacious Regan. These ‘tigers, not daughters’ were among the very best reasons to persevere, post-interval. The only other real theatrical satisfaction, albeit macabre, is from the well-staged scene in which Cornwall gouges the ‘vile jelly’ of Gloucester’s eyes. Sad, perhaps, but true.

Even in abridged form, two-and-something hours on the Ol’ Fitz’ thin-cushioned ‘box seats’ is a big ask and Lear is a demanding play for an audience, as much as for cast and creatives, making it vital something fresh and compelling is brought to bear. It wasn’t until just now that I referred to Hilliar’s directorial notes, in which he’s plumped for the provocative and controversial, but I don’t find these to be present. Nor did I clearly get the temporal shift he had in mind, to a postwar Britain. Thus, his desired focus on a sociopolitical shift from a milieu of filial loyalty, held in place by the weight of tradition, to a burgeoning individualism, was lost. On me, anyway.

King Lear is at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until 17 December. More information is available at sitco.net.au

Featured image by Katy Green Loughrey

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