Get our free email newsletter with just one click

The Shadow King review at the Barbican Theatre, London – ‘arid beauty’

Tom E Lewis in The Shadow King at the Barbican Theatre, London. Photo: Jeff Busby
by -

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.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.

Subscribers to The Stage get 10% off The Stage Tickets’ price
This reimagining of Lear in the Australian outback is eloquent about territory and land rights