Sunday, 4 October 1998

King Lear, Bell Shakespeare, Barrie Kosky, September 1998

I have been slowly posting my reviews from last century. Yes, I'm back to 1998 now. See this review of Kosky directing Lear for Bell in 1998. Great memories. KH

 By William Shakespeare

 Bell Shakespeare Company

Athenaeum II, Melbourne, until September 19, 1998

To misquote Gloucester in King Lear, "Like flies to wanton directors are we; they use us for their sport." Barrie Kosky is nothing if not a naughty, irreverent director and his interpretation of Lear for Bell Shakespeare is certainly not classical.

Imagine Texas Chain Saw Massacre colliding with the cartoon South Park and a Hollywood musical with gorgeous costumes and you have an inkling of the cacophony of styles. Do not expect Lear as you think you know it. Be prepared to discard your prejudices at the box office.

The text still follows its narrative and uses Shakespeare's language, but whole chunks have been excised, as have characters such as Cornwall, Albany, France and Burgundy. In fact, this production might be more successful with even more text removed. It is most effective and affecting when it relies on the imagistic, the musical and the high-tech soundscape (Peter Eades).

Some of the earlier scenes feel cluttered with text. The exception is the last scene that relies on slow, rhythmic, evocative imagery. The emotional thread, which is lost earlier in the play, is revived in the death throes of the whole company.

The lurid violence and mayhem of this production is reminiscent of the French Grand Guignol, a bloody style if ever there was one. Gloucester's (Russel Kiefel) eyes are sucked from his head, his bastard son, Edmund (Benjamin Winspear), is disembowelled by his brother Edgar (Matthew Whittet) who smears himself with excrement as a lunatic disguise. Lear's retinue are a litter of rabid doggy-men with prosthetic phalluses.

John Bell is a potent presence as Lear and is strongest in his final failing moments. Kiefel, as the second betrayed father, the counterpoint to Lear, is a poignant and ingenuous Gloucester.

Louise Fox is delightfully burlesque as the Fool who is somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Shirley Temple. Many Elizabethan witticisms are replaced with contemporary musical references and her rendition of "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" was a gift. Live piano and brass (Kosky, John Brennan, Keith Stirling) provide a further dimension.

The most compelling performance is from Melita Jurisic as Lear's eldest daughter, Goneril, who she plays as a brooding, sultry movie queen with a sensual, provocative darkness in voice and manner.

Grotesquery is rife. The final scene sees the stage littered with bloody bodies more in the style of Hamlet than Lear. The production highlights the filial betrayal and the gruesome consequences of greed and petty jealousies. Get a look at it. You won't see another like it.

By Kate Herbert Sept 1998

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