'King Lear': Theater Review

Courtesy of Sydney Theatre Company
Geoffrey Rush in 'King Lear'
Lots of conceptual modishness but no fire.

After Ionesco’s absurdist 'Exit the King,' Geoffrey Rush and director Neil Armfield reteam for Shakespeare's straight-faced version in this new Sydney Theatre Company production.

Geoffrey Rush and director Neil Armfield took Ionesco's Exit the King to Broadway in 2009 (winning the actor a Tony), and Gogol’s Diary of a Madman to BAM two years later. With the warm-ups out of the way, Rush begins his King Lear boldly by dispensing with the play’s famously dull opening (“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall”). Instead, veteran Robyn Nevin saunters up to a spotlight dressed as Marilyn Monroe. She croons a breathy "Happy Birthday" into the microphone before tearing off a blond wig to reveal herself a lewd, cackling, very Australian Fool. Gold streamers are fired from both sides of the stage as the lights come up to illuminate Rush and his court standing around in evening wear.

It’s a striking opener, though the implication that Lear is a princely party-boy presiding over Camelot doesn’t feel entirely apposite. The hosannas the king demands from his daughters are here contextualized as birthday toasts: an idea that makes sense, though perhaps obscures the caprice of Lear’s request.

The costumes from Alice Babidge (who partnered with Armfield on Holding the Man) are fashionably unobtrusive, gesturing to the contemporary but only in an attempt to subdue any sense of time or place. Rush and his retinue are in dinner suits one moment, shooting jackets the next; otherwise the players get around in shirts and jeans, consciously nonprescriptive.

Robert Cousins’ design is similarly ascetic, restricted in the first half to those gold streamers on the floor, leftover from the birthday bash. That image summons up memories of 2009’s The War of the Roses, Benedict Andrews’ composite of Shakespeare’s history plays, in which cascading gold ribbons rained down on the actors for the entire first act. Both Babidge and Cousins worked on that production, which starred Cate Blanchett on this same stage, and it’s profoundly influential on the conception of this one. The cavernous Roslyn Packer Theatre is unadorned, empty and walled in black.

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After intermission, Cousins and lighting designer Nick Schlieper fill the stage with Turrell-esque white light. The heath is a void here, only momentarily escaped when Lear and Gloucester take refuge in a farmhouse, elegantly represented by a descending silhouette. The symbolic is all. Even death is tastefully mod in its cleanness — deaths are signposted by black gum daubed across the forehead and palm of the actors, and the production ends with the deceased ranged across the stage, staring out at the audience.

As in The War of the Roses, actors address the middle distance as much or even more than they do each other. Jacek Koman’s Kent disguises himself by rubbing white pigment on his face: a nod to his disguise rather than an actual one. Armfield gestures towards the play’s reality but never attempts to make it concrete. 

That slightly abstract approach makes it easy for actors standing next to each other to occupy wildly different registers. As Goneril, Helen Buday reprises her turn from the Rolf de Heer film, Alexandra’s Project: steely but also rather subdued in her villainy. Helen Thomson’s Regan, by contrast, is as broad as her crocodile grin. Thomson is a gifted comedienne, but as Regan — and especially combined with Colin Moody’s dully suburban Cornwall — she just seems ill at ease. Likewise Max Cullen as Gloucester, whose line readings range from the indecipherable to the merely toneless.

As the bastard son Edmund, Armfield has cast indigenous actor Meyne Wyatt — the political implication is clear if never imposed. As Edgar, Mark Leonard Winter (The Dressmaker) emerges as the most vivid of all the players, and not only because he’s a mad Tom who’s naked throughout. Winter’s commitment to his character’s torment is full-throated, and seems even more so beside Cullen’s tamped-down evocation of Gloucester’s suffering — this production's eye plucking feels about as wrenching as a visit to the dentist.  

And what about the main event? Rush has played the Fool twice, and that’s clearly a more intuitive fit for his clowning persona. As Lear, he manages to keep his jester instincts mostly under wraps, though the familiar splayed fingers and jagged elbows sometimes erupt willy-nilly. This King is a slight physical specimen, aggrieved but not exactly volcanic, and without the scale or authority to make his abasement stark.

Eryn Jean Norvill’s Cordelia, who is so angelically subdued she barely registers, doesn’t help the deficiency of pathos. Armfield’s dedication to the minimalist aesthetic sometimes leaves his actors with nowhere to hang their hat. Paring back to the elemental might be what it’s all about, but this Lear begins and ends in the same rut: with declarations of emotion but no feeling.

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Helen Thomson, Helen Buday, Jacek Koman, Max Cullen, Wade Briggs, Alan Dukes, Nick Masters, Colin Moody, Eugene Gilfedder, Mark Leonard Winter, Meyne Wyatt, Nick Masters

Director: Neil Armfield
Playwright: William Shakespeare

Set designer: Robert Cousins
Costume designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Music: John Rodgers with Simon Barker, Phillip Slater
Sound designer: Stefan Gregory
Presented by The Sydney Theatre Company

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