Performance by Malthouse Theatre

Thursday 23 June 2016
Barbican Theatre

Review by Shehrazade Zafar-Arif, MA Shakespeare Studies.

One can read King Lear countless times and pick out a new central, driving theme each time. The theme Michael Kantor picked was land. It was prevalent in the sand that covered the stage of the Barbican, imported from Australia, where the production originates. The set captured the wild unpredictability of the play’s new setting: dull rust red sand that transported the audience to the wild Outback, a truck whose lights glared out over the stalls, and a band that made up Lear’s retinue and provided the indigenous music that was as much the play’s backdrop as the sand.

Kantor chose to lift Lear, a story about a divided English kingdom under a king who gives up his crown, to an Aboriginal community in Australia, tackling themes of post-colonial anxiety about place, race and family. Lear, still referred to and identified as ‘king’, is an Aboriginal leader, Gloucester (here reimagined as a woman) carries a Dilly bag (an Aboriginal spiritual bag which carried spiritual value) and Goneril’s ‘palace’ is instead a trailer whose interior flashes across the screen that hung over the stage.

The cavernous Barbican stage both draws the audience in and holds them at bay, and the dialogue often draws attention to their presence. The screen both contains the Outback and creates a sense of faraway place.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is the role of the Fool, who acts as framing narrator as well as character, setting up the story as an Aboriginal folktale, wandering the stage and closing the story even after his death.

Kantor changed the language of the original text, borrowing important lines and phrases but also translating it into colloquial form as well as peppering the dialogue with Aboriginal terms and expressions. The music wove into the speech, often acting as medium, expressing the inexpressibility and breakdown of language that permeates the play. Instead of Lear’s anguished ‘howl, howl, howl, howl’, the music wails, capturing his wordless grief.

While cultural barriers sometimes make it difficult for the director’s vision to translate across to the audience, the gist of the play resonates through the familiar story and the unfamiliar ways in which it carries through in the changed language, music and speech. Some shifts in the story and characters are more affecting than others – Edmund’s increased agency as villain decreases Goneril and Regan’s agency, and the absence of characters such as Cornwall, Albany and Kent emphasise the sense of a closed community and family drama. The music and language can often be jarring, even alienating, but perhaps that was the point.