As I walk into the Playhouse Theatre for King Lear’s Brisbane opening night, I must admit I’m a little cautious. A successful play that runs over three hours is an enigma. If any play can do it, however, it’s King Lear, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Perhaps I still had Queensland Theatre Company’s other recent production of Waiting for Godot in my mind, but I’m reminded that King Lear is the closest to existentialism that Shakespeare gets. It’s a play where ‘nothing’ is a central theme, and where the protagonist deals with his own mortality with a tragic descent into madness. The play is violent, heart-wrenching and devastating. At least it’s supposed to be. I’m afraid to say this latest production with John Bell in the lead doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The reasons for this are many and varied. A cast this large certainly has its highlights and strong moments, but overall they performed like lemonade that had lost its fizz. I don’t discount at all the very real possibility that this might have been a freak poor night for the company. A national tour as large as this means such occurrences could happen. Nevertheless, I was underwhelmed. As the play went into its second and then third hour, any trace of real emotion and depth seemed to vanish, and leave a cold fourth-wall. I hate to say it, but there were many moments where the performers were inarticulate, and I simply couldn’t decipher what was being said. As the cast took their bows, I wondered at their state of mind: was this level of performance usual for the production – deliberate, even? Impossible to tell. However, the performances from the enormous cast resulted in a lack of tragic impact which I found surprising, given Bell Shakespeare’s long history of excellence.
Marion Potts’ direction is clear enough, and she uses Dale Ferguson’s design quite well. She has choreographed some particularly strong moments. The blinding at the end of act one, for example, is the strongest moment of the play for me. Ferguson’s design of the piece, however, left me bewildered and slightly confused. The set features a central revolve that is cleverly used, but other elements are inconsistent. A beautiful, curved, flown cloth introduced within the first few scenes is then withdrawn completely; I had been looking forward to its being used throughout.
Whilst the costumes were not to my taste, I am still unsure as to whether they were successful or not. They seemed occasionally to inhibit the actors, and the symbolic use of fur coats felt too emphasised. Majestic cloaks used initially in the first section of the play caused a flurry of mysterious glitter that was traced along the floor – another inconsistent and odd design element that was never referenced or used to greater effect. A live percussionist and composer, the brilliant Bree van Reyek, was present on stage for the first act, but jarringly absent in the second. These elements together resulted in an inconsistent palette that only added to the overall feeling of a flat and half hearted show.
King Lear is a Bell Shakespeare production touring nationally as part of the company’s 20th anniversary celebrations. Its addition to Queensland Theatre Company’s season means a very busy time in Queensland theatre right now. Let the Sunshine and Waiting for Godot, both produced in Queensland, are highly successful shows playing simultaneously as part of the state theatre company’s 40th anniversary season. I recommend attendance at King Lear because I would like to be proved wrong: Bell Shakespeare’s long history of guaranteed stunning theatre feels as if it should be present here, but, for me, it wasn’t.
GUEST POST: David Burton is a playwright, lecturer in children’s and young people’s theatre (USQ), and the Director of the Empire Youth Theatre in Toowoomba. David’s latest work Captain Pathos and his Army of Imaginary Friends appears in this year’s USQ Children’s Theatre Festival, following his acclaimed Spirits in Bare Feet for last year’s Festival. His one-man play Furious Angels will premiere as part of the Metro Arts Independent season later this year. Dave is also working on the commissioned April’s Fool for the Empire Theatre; this new work premieres in August before an extensive tour of Queensland. In 2009, his award-winning work Lazarus Won’t Get Out of Bed was produced by AS Theatre, and played a season at Metro Arts in Brisbane. Other work includes The Bachelor Prophecies (2007) and Smashed (2008). Follow him on Twitter @dave_burton