Having compulsorily studied only three Shakespearean plays at school, but sat through many more since, my yardstick for judging the success of a Shakespearean production is whether or not I can follow the story.
In recent years the fashion for inclusiveness and gender-blind casting has made this simple guideline increasingly more difficult. So much so that I sometimes feel my enthusiasm for self-education with regards to Shakespeare waning.
However, the titillating prospect of experiencing Karen Vickery, surely Canberra’s most accomplished actor, take on the challenge of interpreting what is often to referred to as the Mount Everest of Shakespearean roles, made Echo Theatre’s production of King Lear a ‘must see’.
The evening commenced promisingly on entering the theatre to be greeted with a dramatically lit stage on which the lone figure, King Lear, was seated on a rough throne musing over a map.
This was the first of several impressive visual images which would occur throughout Echo Theatre’s arresting production of King Lear.
As played by Karen Vickery, Lear wears trousers throughout, even though her three daughters wear dresses. She is addressed as ‘my lady’ and referred to as the Queen, leaving no doubt that in this production, the play is about a mother’s response to the terrible events which engulf her three daughters, rather than a fathers.
While the possibilities of this premise are interestingly explored by Joel Horwood with his intelligent direction and Karen Vickery’s astonishing performance in the central role, there is something about the psychology of this premise that doesn’t sit quite right.
So while fascinated with Vickery’s extraordinary display of histrionics and technique, it was difficult to feel empathy for her character until the climactic scene in which she briefly recognises her daughter, Cordelia.
Though the storyline regarding Lear’s relationship with her daughters was relatively clear, double casting made it difficult for anyone not familiar with the play to make much sense of the many sub-plots.
For instance casting Petronella von Tienen, a fine, but easily recognisable young actress, as Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, then have her play Lear’s fool, before returning at the end of the play as Cordelia, was confusing and just one example. Where it was necessary for double casting, more attention with costuming and deportment was necessary to distinguish between the characters.
In this regard, the set and costume design by Kathleen Kershaw was a bit Curate’s egg. The use of artfully lit, dark drapes in the first act was inspired, particularly as utilised later with additional lighting and sound effects to create the spectacular storm scene. Thoughtfully staged scene-changes were also impressive.
However the stark white screen across the back of the stage for the second act left the stage without atmosphere or context, and the actors exposed. And while there were some excellent individual costumes, Lear’s opening costume, the costume for Goneril, and the kilts for the men being outstanding, there appeared a lack of an overall concept, with other costumes looking haphazard and lacking of clues as to status or purpose.
Despite this there were many fine performances among the excellent cast, with obvious attention having been paid to clarity of line delivery. Particularly impressive in this regard, in addition to Vickery, were Lewis McDonald (Edmund), Josh Wiseman (Edgar), Michael Sparks (Gloucester), Jim Adamic (Albany), Lainie Hart (Goneril), Natasha Vickery (Regan – despite being lumbered with a costume so unflattering as to be distracting) and Petronella van Tienen (Cordelia).
So while your response to this production may be dependent on how familiar you are with the play, I would certainly rate it as the most interesting Shakespearean production I have experienced this year.
The Q – Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, 253 Crawford Street, Queanbeyan
Performance: Thursday 30 November 2023
Season continues to 3 December 2023
Information and Bookings: www.theq.net.au
Image: Karen Vickery (King Lear) and Lainie Hart (Goneril) and Cast in King Lear – photo by Photox Canberra Photography Services
Review: Bill Stephens