****.5 stars

By Darby Turnbull

Audiences in 1606 would have no doubt felt cheated if Mr. Shakespeare’s latest tragedy came in at ninety minutes, anything under four hours would be considered a horrendous waste of hard-earned money. However, skipping forward to 2021 where like Shakespeare we’re in the shadow of a plague that also closed the theatres (give or take ten years) ninety minutes seems like a perfectly adequate time to spend with King Lear. Ayesha Gibson’s shrewd and taut production makes mostly seamless edits to the density of the original without sacrificing too many of the themes, narrative or character development. The draw will undoubtedly be Evelyn Krape’s fabulous performance in the title role, but Gibson has really embraced the strong cast of characters that surround Lear, excellently embodied by the company, to present an engaging ensemble piece.

Those unfamiliar with the plot and characters are encouraged to read a summary as this review will only provide passing details. Ayesha Gibson presents an excellent study of modern-day power and the effects on those that prop it up, challenge it and are damaged by it. At its peak, Lear; the king, feckless, naïve, narcissistic; out of touch with both his family, subordinates and the people he governs. Having sustained power for so long he can’t see himself losing it. Evelyn Krape’s Lear is less of a blow hard prone to tantrums when he doesn’t get his way but a more wily, emotionally manipulative figure, this is a Lear who doesn’t necessarily have to raise his voice to get the point across. She plays someone so secure and far gone from their humanity that she can rip apart someone’s life with the flick of her hand. She creates a thrilling character arc for Lear as he slowly begins to get in touch with his humanity and failures as a father and leader. She takes him through a second childhood that is fascinatingly heartbreaking. Frailty comes to us all, even those who cause damage.

As Lear’s counterpart Anthea Davis gives a beautifully empathetic performance as the Duke of Gloucester whose family travails and arc mirror Lear’s own. In this version Gloucester is less arrogant and bullyish than is usually portrayed and Davis plays him with gentle if gullible humility. Gloucester has really been given the ‘hero’ edit and it comes at the cost of his complexity. Davis however is an easy highlight, especially in portraying how Gloucester’s empathy and decency result in his eventual torture and loss of independence. I believe it would have been much more powerful to see his other side and how it compliments his more tangible qualities. Don Bridges gives a grounded and gentle portrayal as Lear’s fool, the one person allowed to tell the truth as long as it’s passed off as a ‘joke’. Bridges movingly plays the Fool’s devotion and care of Lear that evokes a lifelong relationship. Likewise Kevin Hopkins plays Kent as a solid, plain speaking albeit arrogant everyman so committed to his integrity that it comes off as noble; when he challenges Lear’s banishment of Cordelia and self-destructive as when he attacks’ Goneril’s emissary Oswald (Andrew Yang).

Modern audiences have certainly come around to being able to openly identify and sympathise with the antagonists who to quote Lear ‘are more sinned against the sinning’ or at least as sinned against as they sin. Claire Nichols (Goneril), Annabelle Tudor (Reagan) and Matthew Connell (Edmund) all give deeply empathetic portrayals of damaged individuals caught up in a corrupt system who have been forced to fight with the same weapons that have been used against them. Nichols’ Goneril is a stoic figure who shows beautifully subtle shifts between hurt and steel as Lear’s treatment of her grows progressively more abusive. Gibson has opted to give her considerable more agency in Gloucester’s torture and Nichol’s gives a masterful portrayal of Goneril surrendering whatever humanity she had left in real time. Tudor seems to be having an excellent time developing Reagan’s puckish glee in playing games with the people around her paired with a weary, sustained bitterness in her taken for granted potential. Jonathan Peck as her vile husband Cornwall provides great support as her enabler and general sadist.

Really Goneril and Reagan deserve a fair amount of empathy their initial ‘crimes’ being refusing to put up with their father’s horde of rowdy knights and squires in their homes coupled with Lear’s volatile moods and treatment of them. It’s almost as if halfway through the play Shakespeare realised he’d made his antagonists too sympathetic and doubled down on their depraved behaviour which the actors have to work twice as hard to sell. The third antagonist, Edmund, who rather inexplicably ends up in a love triangle with Goneril and Reagan, is Gloucester’s ‘illegitimate’ son Edmund who being denied any of his father’s estate resorts to lies and manipulations to get what he sees as rightfully his. Matthew Connell gives one of the most original interpretations of Edmund I’ve ever seen. Instead of a Machiavellian monster he shows a genuine pain and torment for his descent into moral compromise. Connell poignantly plays the pain of someone who has been undermined and discarded. Unfortunately, the scene where his father humiliates and dismisses him has been but entirely which removes some of his motivations, but Connell’s layered performance makes up for it.

In Shakespeare the ‘Goodies’ are often less fun and fully drawn than their morally corrupt counterparts; after lying low for the first half of the play Augustin Tchantcho as Albany defies the description as Goneril’s weak, henpecked husband to create a portrait of a passionate, virile man of unwavering decency. Kayla Hamill as Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son excellently portrays the arc of the sheltered, trusting young man who learns about poverty of spirit when he goes underground as a homeless madman to the hardened avenger in the plays final moments. John Reed has some lovely albeit brief moments as the sweetly sensitive King of France who weds Cordelia. Reed also does double duty as the fight choreographer and his sequences are very effective.

Isabella Ferrer does her best with Cordelia, playing her as forthright, smart young woman who refuses to coddle her father’s narcissism at her own cost. Unfortunately, there’s really not much she can do as Shakespeare’s text leaves her under developed and this current adaption has edited out some of her choiciest lines.

Andrew Dang provides reliable comic relief and intelligent characterisation as Goneril’s smarmy, weak willed servant, Oswald. Alongside the Fool, one of the few lower class characters in the play (though quite high up for a servant) Dang very strongly portrays an individual caught up within a corrupt system, out of his depth whose only method of advancement is to degrade himself and suck up to the right people.

The creative team do an exceptional job of realising Gibson’s vision. Aislinn Naughton’s costumes create some very sharp silhouettes for all the actors. Especially for Lear and Gloucester which does not conceal that they’re played by female actors but ensures that they’re well-tailored to their figures. She has paid excellent attention to detail in the corporate chic apparel worn by the cast. Reagan’s vulgar leather skirt, lace shirt and fur coat is a very fun ensemble that suits the character perfectly. Hayley James’ set is eye catching and innovative; her twisted corporate layout which include desks, office chairs and filing cabinets filled with broken phones and electronics make for a very effective play space for the cast, her wheeled chair leg chandeliers are a delight (phantom of the opera revival take note). Ben Keene’s soundscape is a tense, ubiquitous presence throughout the piece delicately evoking mood and seamlessly integrating itself with the cast’s delivery and vice versa. Likewise, Alex Blackwell’s lighting is mostly unobtrusive but is allowed a few occasions to shine (I’m sorry) in some of the more abstract moments including the storm, Gloucester’s blinding and the final battle.

Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear is an intelligent and enjoyable interpretation of this classic and persistently produced play; it’s incredible opportunity for an artist of Evelyn Krape’s stature to take on one of the canonically great roles which happily in the last few years has ceased to become limited to venerable men; Glenda Jackson and Robyn Nevin having paved the way in recent years. I personally would have appreciated more exploration into gender dynamics within the production and I did miss some passages that served the characters motivations, but it can’t be denied that this is a very exciting debut for Melbourne Shakespeare’s Studio productions which I hope will only become bolder and more insightful.

It is saddening that due to the implementation of lockdown opening night, which I attended was the last performance until it is lifted. I would like to express my admiration for the cast and crew for performing under those conditions and I hope their skill and commitment will be honoured when the time is right.

I hope readers will consider donation to the Victorian Actors Benevolent Trust, workers in our field have been hit harder than ever under Covid and every contribution helps. VICTORIAN ACTORS’ BENEVOLENT TRUST – Helping those in need since 1958 (vabt.com.au)

Images: Chelsea Neate