Geoffrey Rush’s assumption of King Lear, in the new Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production, lights a somewhat slow fuse towards madness and death. The predominant tone of this production, directed by Neil Armfield, seemed laconic, embodied by the fast talking SP bookie style vaudeville of the Fool, wonderfully enacted by Robyn Nevin as a pint size mocker of Nuncle’s dishevelled logic (abdicating power but holding on to fractured kingship). The Fool in drag, as Marilyn Monroe, with a happy birthday greeting to the satiated King was a pointed opener to a long night.
Nevin in drag was the best of the women. The threat and danger of the plotting sisters was only fitfully realised. It was hard to believe in the ‘celebrity housewives’ approach that Helen Thomson (Regan) employed, heavily signposted by her tortured vowels and sniggering nasal threat. Helen Buday as Goneril was a little more successful with her side of the ledger, but the dark seething rage that should underpin her quest for power, and her desire for a new manly, lustful consort did not leave as many marks as this role can inspire. Her reaction, however, to the prowling King when he announces an anathema of childlessness upon her was well judged.
Cordelia looked beautiful and floated on a series of well modulated cadences, but the true sorrow and loneliness of her chaste love is a difficult thing to realise. Eryn Jean Norvill has a lovely vocal instrument, but a hit of sameness is now emerging in her characterisations, with breathlessness the predominate note.
The men, likewise, gave variable performances. Max Cullen as Gloucester seemed a shrunken man from the beginning, tripping over his wonderful lines, mumbling, his emotions internalised and lacking deep outrage, though his sobbing at the end of his cruel torture, and his delicate interactions with Mad Tom/Edgar were sweetly done. As Kent, Jacek Koman’s deftly accented Shakespearean language picked meaning from the stream of similes. His encounter with Oswald was a wonderful vignette of invective.
Mark Leonard Winter as Edgar/Mad Tom gave a lustrous performance of assumed madness: young, gullible and learning the ache of living as the night progressed. His stepbrother, the bastard Edmund, lacked such nuance. Meyne Wyatt spent most of the evening hectoring us in his crisp lounge suit, though the latter part of his role did elicit snatches of a quieter, more nuanced reading of the role; overall, the ‘lounge singer’ as villain was not very threating. The warring Dukes, Albany and Cornwall, were adequately essayed by Allan Dukes and Colin Moody respectively.
The production was sparsely furbished, but the storm scene was a highlight of stark simplicity. How effective water and wind on stage is, and to see the court’s glittering tinsel strewn by these elements across the stage easily signalled the elemental forces that mock human endeavour. The black hand of death, marked on all the upright slaughtered, was another effective design touch.
The second half of the production saw Rush across a full range of emotions, tugging at the tart humour that informs the knowledge of madness, unleashing a barrage of questions and measuring the failure of both his life and his society. The howl that emerged from his discovery of Cordelia's body, and the utter horror that wretches his body at the hanging of his fool capped a night of discovery. The winner in all this was the poetry of Shakespeare. The King and his Fool delivered a very Australian rendition of this dark play.
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) – SYDNEY THEATRE (Roslyn Packer) – December 1, 2015