Friday, 13 July 2012

Queen Lear, William Shakespeare, MTC, July 12, 2012

Queen Lear by William Shakespeare, Melbourne Theatre Company
MTC Sumner Theatre, July 12 to Aug 18, 2012
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 12
Stars: ***1/2

CHANGING THE GENDER OF SHAKESPEARE'S tragic monarch from male to female was always going to be a challenge and Rachel McDonald’s production, Queen Lear, succeeds only in part, mainly because of several compelling performances.

Not the least of these is Robyn Nevin’s riveting portrayal of the ageing Queen Lear who begins as a dignified, elegant and arrogant sovereign, slides into childish debauchery followed by rage and self-pity, then degenerates into despair and psychosis.

Little is altered in the text apart from ‘he’ changing to ‘she’ and ‘Sir’ becoming ‘Ma’am’, but much more changes in the meaning with these small shifts in language.

What is missing is the emasculation of an old man who lived with unquestioned power but is now overthrown and demeaned by women and, worse, by his own daughters.

 Yes, both lived with the Divine Right of Kings, the loyalty, deference and fear of subjects but, somehow, it feels as if an old man, an ancient King, has further to fall and his defeat is more crushing.

We miss the doting old father whose power and masculinity is shattered when his beloved Cordelia denies him. 
The father-daughter relationship differs from mother-daughter in that fathers may idealise their daughters whereas mothers identify with them.

Queen Lear’s madness becomes more specifically like schizophrenia because the Fool, although appearing intermittently as a girlish, anonymous presence, is represented as voices that only the Queen hears.

Sadly lacking is the Fool’s companionship, confronting advice and wisdom, his position as the only person courageous or trusted enough and speak the truth to the autocrat.

The production is set in an abstract, vacant, prison-like space (Tracy Grant Lord), interrupted by lengths of chain dripping from above and rigs adorned with barbed wire.

Genevieve Picot and Belinda McClory are exceptional as Lear’s grasping, older daughters with Picot’s Goneril controlled and conniving and McClory’s Regan sleek, passionate and dissembling.

Less successful is Alexandra Schepisi’s depiction of Cordelia, Lear’s favoured, youngest daughter. Although her final scene with Lear is affecting, her vocal weakness diminishes Cordelia’s sincerity and she does not effectively capture her potent, principled character.

Robert Menzies is a highlight as loyal, dutiful Kent, balancing deference and age with hilariously insolent invective directed at Goneril’s slippery servant Oswald, played by Greg Stone.

David Paterson’s Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester (Richard Piper) is suitably ambitious and deceptive, but also interestingly cool and glib. As his betrayed brother Edgar, Rohan Nichol is not vocally connected to the text until his final scenes with Gloucester.

Nicholas Hammond is composed and brutal as Cornwall and Greg Stone’s wheelchair bound Albany is a rational, mild voice amidst the cruelty.

One theme of this play is youth deposing age, and the unembellished scene between Nevin’s crazed Lear and Piper’s blinded Gloucester is a poignant lament for their lost dignity.

McDonald’s direction takes some successful risks but lacks light and shade, the highs and lows are insufficiently differentiated so we lose the extremity of the tragedy of Shakespeare’s play.

It misses the chaos of the blasted, stormy landscape to which Lear escapes and the resultant contrast with the opulence of her court.

The production allows Shakespeare’s comedy to shine, but the through line and style of the production lack coherence and the anachronistic costumes are sometimes distracting, but it is distinguished by some fine individual performances.

By Kate Herbert

Robyn Nevin
Nicholas Hammond
Belinda McClory
Robert Menzies
Rohan Nichol
David Paterson
Genevieve Picot
Richard Piper
Alexandra Schepisi
Greg Stone

Director Rachel McDonald
Designer Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Niklas Pajanti
Composition Iain Grandage

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