A savage, affecting King Lear hamstrung by savage cuts

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A savage, affecting King Lear hamstrung by savage cuts

By Cameron Woodhead

THEATRE

King Lear ★★½

45downstairs to August 1, streaming online August 4-20

For all the misery they cause, lockdowns can inspire dauntless ambition in the performing arts. We saw it last year, when Suzanne Chaundy directed an excellent Das Rheingold – prelude to only the second production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle here in living memory – at the Regent Theatre.

Evelyn Krape as Lear.

Evelyn Krape as Lear.Credit:Jack Dixon-Gunn

Melbourne Shakespeare Company, too, has emerged from the latest lockdown unbowed, mounting one of the Bard’s more challenging tragedies.

This indie King Lear has been delayed by two lockdowns in quick succession, and still, the players have been nothing short of heroic: stage-ready as soon as public health measures lifted, with an abbreviated live season at 45downstairs and a digital version of the performance streaming from Wednesday for anyone who missed out.

The apocalyptic overtones of Lear make it a timely play to revisit, and this breathless, 90-minute version in modern dress demonstrates sharply how far we’ve come in genderblind Shakespearean performance, since the weirdly insecure production of Queen Lear starring Robyn Nevin nearly a decade ago.

It’s a no-brainer for the Brits – with the likes of Glenda Jackson and Harriet Walter assaying Lear – and Australia has caught up (thanks in no small part to Kate Mulvany’s charming malevolence as Richard III at Bell Shakespeare) to the point that seeing Evelyn Krape as Lear and Anthea Davis as Gloucester feels entirely unremarkable.

Indeed, it is the hack-and-slash textual edit that’s the odd duck here.

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The play does rocket along, leaving much of the plot-advancing dialogue untouched while curtailing important speeches revealing motivation and depth of character. The result can feel more like Titus Andronicus than Lear, more like an action/horror flick (a la Simon Phillips’ Macbeth with Jai Cameron) than tragedy.

Further unbalancing the dramatic calculus are smooth performances from the villains: Matthew Connell’s sardonic amorality as Edmund; the calculated mendacity and destructive drive of Claire Nicholls’ Goneril and Annabelle Tudor’s Regan; Jonathan Peck’s velvety, dark-hearted Cornwall.

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Weak in comparison are Isabella Ferrer – who makes a bizarrely affectless Cordelia – and Kayla Hamill as the hapless Edgar, both tramping unmusically through their roles. And Davis’ Gloucester is too mild-mannered to fill out the subplot (to be fair, crucial parts of her role are cut).

As for Lear himself, I’m told Krape was recovering from a chest infection. Certainly, she gave every sign of reining in vocally an intriguing, if limited, interpretation that pointedly emphasises the character’s narcissistic impulses, the void at the heart of his identity, the meaninglessness of his suffering.

We never see even flickers of the virtues that keep Lear’s remaining coterie by his side. Given that the irreverent wisdom of Don Bridges’ Fool, and the violent loyalty of Kevin Hopkins’ Kent, both hit home, that’s probably a flaw.

Despite shortcomings, this Lear does provide a strong sense of bewildering savagery, of the sheer unpredictability and artlessness that can dominate as life unfolds in a world on the brink of collapse. And the current crisis offers every audience member a personal lens through which to filter what is arguably Shakespeare’s bleakest play.

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