The Shadow King review at the Barbican Theatre, London – ‘arid beauty’
Malthouse Theatre’s reimagining of King Lear places Shakespeare’s play in the Australian outback. Drawing on the culture, colours and language of its setting, the reworked play becomes a vehicle for a specific message about the struggles over land ownership among contemporary indigenous peoples in Northern Australia.
Michael Kantor’s The Shadow King is oddly comic in tone: jaunty and rather rough around the edges. It smashes Shakespeare’s tragic world into something more contemporary. “I got five kids in there” complains Goneril, while the Fool sings “I wanna be loved by you” Marilyn Monroe-style.
Characters slip freely between English and Kriol. It’s a lovely sound, but it’s difficult to get the sense of some of the lines. Very little of Shakespeare’s text remains, just the odd fragment which ends up feeling out of place, like a finely hewn ice sculpture in this parched desert setting.
Tom E Lewis plays the grinning king, quick to break into dance and sing silly songs. Dressed like an Elvis impersonator, his Lear is breathless and Tiggerish. His is a cheery kind of madness, a slow exaggeration of the childishness he displays when sane.
As the play progresses the lightness and humour – a bit soap opera, a bit sitcom – turns darker. Lear’s spontaneous dancing and singing (accompanied by a live band), which showed his cheeriness at the beginning, become a sign of his madness at the end.
There’s an arid beauty to Kantor’s design. Everything is rusty, coloured a deep burnt orange. There’s a layer of sand that covers the floor and a huge metal structure, like a car bonnet, that occupies most of the stage. Above this bonnet, speckled with rivets, is a screen which displays projections of Australian scenery. It’s not the most balanced of productions but there are parallels to be drawn between the original play and its contemporary context, and there’s a lot to like in Lewis’ Lear.