Art & Design

   

The Shadow King

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The Shadow King transports Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear to the far north of Australia, where a remote Indigenous community grapples with the tension between traditional law and the capitalist imperatives of land rights.

Co-created by director Michael Kantor and performer Tom E. Lewis, with a text translated by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cast into a mix of English, northern Kriol, and Aboriginal languages, it is an ambitious and heart wrenching production.

Lear (played by Lewis himself) is not a literal king, but a ruler in his family nonetheless. When he asks, as his Shakespearean namesake does, which of his three daughters loves him the most in order to determine the heir to his land, it’s a mixture of stubborn pride and misplaced humility, a refusal to admit his country will outlast him.

The eldest daughters, Goneril (Jada Alberts) and Regan (Natasha Wanganeen), falsely espouse their affections, but the young Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick) nobly refuses to pander to his ego. A bruised Lear banishes her to exile, and relinquishes his land to the eldest two—unwittingly exposing them to the machinations of the scheming Edmund Gloucester (Jimi Bani).

The set-up is fairly faithful to Shakespeare’s tragedy, but here the fatal flaw is not only greed but, as Lear’s Fool (Kamahi Djordon King, the play’s narrator and conscience) observes, the misguided notion that land can ever be owned. The salience of this point is reinforced by the centrepiece of the set design, a monstrous road-train rising out of red earth that is a reminder that viewing land as simply wealth can result in its exploitation.

Lear’s decision brings every character into conflict, and the drama unfolds with a mostly cracking pace. The multilingual text blends lyricism and an unmannered naturalism, and is complemented by the earthy characterisation—Albert’s commanding Goneril, for example, is a single mother with a husband in jail.

Not all of this character work is even, however, and some moments (in particular, the violent ones) feel forced into place. But these are minor quibbles in an overall highly affecting and authoritative production that is set to tour the Australian festival circuit. It deserves an international run as well.

The Shadow King is playing at Malthouse Theatre (as part of Melbourne Festival) until 27 October.
For more information and tickets visit: www.malthousetheatre.com.au


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