Red heart: Sydney Festival & Malthouse’s The Shadow King

“The greatest of all epics about nation, is finally an epic about our nation,” proclaims the promotional material for Sydney Festival’s presentation of The Shadow King, and there is much in this production to recognise, in both the Aboriginal nation and in the ‘white’ Australia. The first thing you notice when you enter the space at Carriageworks, is the red earth, a vivid orange only amplified by the lights. To one side sit a rock band – guitars, Hammond organ, didgeridoo – while the middle of the space is dominated by a marvellous overbearing metal evocation of a gargantuan mining truck which turns and slides forward, mechanised and invasive; violating the red sacred earth.
Directed by Michael Kantor from an idea by himself and Tom E. Lewis (who plays Lear), it follows much the same progression as Shakespeare’s text. It too is about familial conflict, power, land and entitlement; about learning humility, learning how to see when you are blind. Originally presented by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in 2013, we are introduced at the outset to the Fool (Kamahi Djordon King), who serves as a framing device for the telling of the story, all at once part of it and outside of it, a bit like a spiritual songman, drawing past present and future together. Eschewing Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter in favour of a contemporary translation workshopped by the cast in several local Aboriginal languages, the core of the story is never lost in translation, nor do you need subtitles; the language is just as expressive and direct as Shakespeare’s, and when spoken from the red earth, it breathes with a new life and vitality.

There is much to admire in this production – from the mechanised set, to the energy of the band, the performances of the cast, and the strength of the concept – however it did feel as though it lacked something in its depth, it didn’t have the emotional weight it could have had. That is not to say that it wasn’t powerful; it was, it just promised so much more. The three daughters, played by Jada Alberts (Goneril), Natasha Wanganeen (Regan) and Rarriwuy Hick (Cordelia), while all very much part of a family, didn’t convey much of the manipulation and power struggle inherent in their relationship. Damion Hunter’s Edgar initially seemed perhaps too naïve, which made his transition to and from the Poor Tom figure less than could be believable. As Lear, Tom E. Lewis had an earthy charm, an easy majesty, but he was perhaps too light-footed to be the wise old man the Fool purports him to be. As Gloucester, Frances Djulibing was the complement to the Fool, very much the observer of the traditional ways; her blinding scene seemed to come out of nowhere and was all the more effective because of it. As Edmund, Jimi Bani  was perhaps the immediate strongest; there was a delightful mix of cunning, danger, duplicity and manipulation in his character, and the glee and relish with which Bani plays him is infectious.
Don’t get me wrong here – the actors themselves were all strong; it’s just the characters and their development that were slightly lacking in depth. And I think this is where the production falls short of its promise and expectations. Yes, it is an audacious thing to do, to take on one of “white man’s dreamtime [stories], one of the foundation stories of contemporary Western civilisation, [and] use it to question and probe contemporary Indigenous experience, particularly as it is now in Northern Australia.” While the story is still recognisably Shakespeare’s, it has been decisively uprooted from its British roots and firmly planted deep within the red heart of Northern Australia, immersed within the language and traditions of the indigenous people, told in their languages with their people on stage telling it. And on the whole it works. Perhaps Shakespeare spoils his audiences with his characters, with his language and its depths and intricacies, but while the red heart was there in The Shadow King, the spirit and soul were not quite, and I don’t think it’s the fault of anyone in particular, but rather something that happened in translation, something that can happen when three hours is literally halved.
The other quibble with the production is merely technical. The Carriageworks space lacked acoustic definition, with the rock band often drowning out the actors’ voices even though they were all radio-miked. The space was quite wide too which, while it certainly suited the scale of the production and lent the set a sense of place as befit its setting, meant that the sound was lost when actors were on the far side of the space, their faces angled away from the bulk of the (sizeable) audience.
All told, I’m glad I saw this Lear, this Shadow King in all its red splendour. And while it might not have quite lived up to its promise and the expectations afforded it by its critical reception, its passion and heart were firmly placed in its telling, perhaps the characters’ motivations and interactions could be mined further, their humanity plumbed and more of that vivid red earth brought to the surface alongside the untold treasures which I am sure are buried within it.

Theatre playlist: 6. Dancing In The Moonlight, Coloured Stone

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