Alongside Hamlet, King Lear is one of the megaliths of the Western dramatic canon, regarded by Percy Bysshe Shelley as “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world.” Often cited as being sublime and universal, it is also extremely nihilistic, a bleak portrait of despair, a Bacon-like scream into the abyss. Known for his acute observations of humanity and generosity in directing, Neil Armfield’s work embraces the epic and intimate all at once, and so it was with great expectations and an almost-equal dose of trepidation that I entered his production of King Lear for Sydney Theatre Company. The only trouble is, it isn’t really that compelling at all.
King Lear tells the story of a man who, having decided to abdicate the throne, orders his three daughters to publically profess their love for him, intending to divide his kingdom proportionately between them. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, shower him in flattery; his youngest, Cordelia, refuses, and she is disinherited and married to the King of France. Following quarrels with his daughters, Lear walks into a storm where he descends into madness. Everything else, as they say, is history.
Like so much of Armfield’s previous work (a lot of which was produced in the Belvoir Street Theatre), this Lear is ostensibly set upon the very stage it is being played upon. While it might afford a glib sidestepping of the decision to set it in any concrete period, time, or place, what we lose is the specificity of the drama. Playing in the barn-like Roslyn Packer Theatre (formerly the
Sydney Theatre), this Lear
is of the black-box / white-box school of theatre-making we have seen so often
the past five years. Robert
Cousins’ set recalls umpteen Simon Stone productions (perhaps most notably Strange
Interlude), except without the welcome addition of clarifying elements
like its jetty, shower, or swing. Apart from an explosion of gold streamers in
the opening moments, the first half is played in a black box, darkly lit, and
clothed (by Alice
Babidge) in sombre tones and evening wear; only Lear’s daughters wear
colour. The storm scene is the first indication of a different set, as the
black box flies upwards to reveal white walls. A cut-out of a house – eerily
reminiscent of the same flat recycled from The
Present in August – indicates the hovel Lear and company find
themselves in, before we are returned to the enveloping black. Post-interval,
we find ourselves in a misty white void, swallowing its own corners, warping
our perception of the space. It is in this formless space that Lear loses his
mind, betrayals are sealed, redemptions hinted at, and loyalties tested, but
with only subtly modulated shades of colour in Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the
whiteness soon loses its initial effectiveness. Sydney
The design aesthetic – indeed, much of this production – owes much to Armfield’s production of The Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in
in 2013, a style he has described
as “ratbags and autocrats.” Where The
Ring might’ve had Wagner’s rich music and a cast of hundreds to fill out
its stage, Lear has a stage which
feels too visually empty, and a cast which seems to consist of too many minor
walk-on roles (played by individual actors, rather than through doubling); the
stage feels over-populated despite its empty design. The storm, which for Lear
and the Fool is both literal and metaphoric, as much as it is psychological, is
rendered here in far too literal a way. A wind machine blasts the actors while
several rain machines pour down from above, drenching the actors and the stage.
The roar of the wind machine makes Lear’s barnstorming “Blow, winds, and crack your
cheeks! Rage! blow! you cataracts and hurricanoes” almost inaudible, and
ruins the affecting nature of the moment: this is a man railing against nature,
daring it to strike him in its fury, as he himself is furious. Perhaps what
Armfield gives us here is the futility of the gesture, but it is much less than
affecting due to its very literalness. (Marion Potts’ evocation in her 2010
production for Bell Shakespeare sticks in the memory as a memorable
storm, not least for its sheer simplicity, letting the audience fill in the
And what of Geoffrey Rush as Lear, the man “more sinn’d against than sinning?” A natural clown, best known for his performances in The Diary of a Madman, as well as in Shine and Pirates of the Caribbean, Rush here seems somewhat miscast as the titular king. While he does not quite have the gravitas that the first half of the play deserves, his descent into madness is for the most part well-played, although he does have a tendency to play to the audience, noticeably looking a laugh amongst the bleakness of acts four and five. And while I don’t blame him entirely for this, laughter is after all a welcome relief in a play like this, I don’t think Rush’s mugging or wide-eyed wink-wink larking about is the way to do it either. Robyn Nevin’s Fool, the counterpoint to Rush’s Lear, is a down-to-earth trackside bookie’s assistant, complete with dusty suit, croaky voice, and a pork-pie hat. There’s a craftiness, a time-worn weariness to her Fool, but there’s also a very strong line she walks in keeping Lear on track while he chases the sanctuary of his daughters’ houses, before being cast out – out of his kingdom, out of his wits; out into the storm. As Lear loses his mind, he has no need for the Fool’s truths or companionship, and so they part ways. And while Lear finds a companion in Poor Tom, it is the Fool who is his equal and oldest friend, and without him, Lear is truly alone.
The rest of Armfield’s characters are a mixed bag, though all are strong actors. Eryn Jean Norvill’s Cordelia is strong, though – as is always the case in Lear – she is short-changed by the size of her role. Helen Thomson’s Regan and Helen Buday’s Goneril are effective in their divisive nature and scheming agendas, but they too are also short-changed by their roles, and don’t really appear to grow. Colin Moody’s
is powerful, but there is no heart to his characterisation, only outward brute
power. Meyne Wyatt’s Edmund, the villainous bastard around whom so much of the play’s
subplot revolves – is larger than life and in some respects fills the theatre,
but again there is only outward presence, no inner substance to his
performance; I don’t feel any of these characters are people, I don’t believe
they truly think as they profess, that they are flesh and blood, but rather
shadows, ghosts of people. Cornwall
Part of the problem I think lies in the text, in the way it is delivered and spoken by a large proportion of the cast. There doesn’t seem to be much clarity in the enunciation of the words, no concrete understanding of what words and lines mean, and so meaning – the need to convey it, just as much as the need to know what you are saying – is lost on the audience. Rush and Nevin give it a fair crack and, for the most part, succeed, as do Norvill, Mark Leonard Winter as Edgar/Poor Tom, and Moody; but for many of the other actors, especially many of the smaller (literally, walk-on) roles, there is no connection between the lines and the information they are delivering; no understanding or belief conveyed through them. In Lear (as in every other of Shakespeare’s plays), this is dangerous, as so much of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy comes through the repetition of words and phrases, through the way allegiances are constructed and destroyed, through the constant crossing and double-crossing of information. Instead, words and information falls like slabs from the stage, crumbling around us like the ruins of Lear’s kingdom.
The biggest revelation in this production was Mark Leonard Winter’s Poor Tom. While his Edgar is nothing altogether remarkable (he is entirely serviceable and commendable), his Poor Tom cuts to the heart of the character’s dilemma, and shows how a sane man must go mad in order to save himself and others. There’s a barely disguised glee in the way he slips and glides across the wet stage, shrieking and gurgling in delight, and it reminds me of something straight out of The Mighty Boosh. As with other such instances, there is enormous courage and fearlessness in his performance, particularly as he spends the better part of forty-five minutes in near-total nakedness, save for a few strands of gold streamers. But as Poor Tom gives way to Edgar again, as he sheds his disguise in favour of truth and right action, he gains compassion and dignity by seemingly having had nothing. Unlike Lear, he passes through madness on the way to survival, and gains more than he had at the beginning.
Armfield’s ending, while slightly cluttered visually, is one of the strongest visual instances of the production. As Lear loses the battle with his wits, as Regan and Goneril meet their ends, and the whole inner mechanism of power within the play resolves itself, every member of the fourteen-strong cast finds themselves on stage, staring straight out at the audience. As they die (or if they already are), they open their hand to reveal a black muddied palm; some faces and clothes are smeared with the same blackness, as one by one, the population of the kingdom shrinks down to a mere couple. Reminiscent of a blood-soaked Hamlet, this ending shows the true ramification of playing favourites, of picking sides; shows just how brutal and merciless the struggle for power is.
While this production might not be of “biblical proportions,” nor “punctuated with spectacular, incisive truth,” there is the occasional glimmer here of what might have been had Armfield and Rush embarked upon this production on the Belvoir Street corner stage ten years earlier; overall, however, the precision and intimacy of the shared human experience normally found in a Neil Armfield production is missing here. Lear might have been freed from reality, but he – it; this production – has also been freed from the necessary clarity it needed to truly affect us; as the Fool says near the beginning of the play, “out went the candle, and we were left darkling.”