Uneven but fascinating Aboriginal riff on 'King Lear'
Banished Edgar leads blind Gloucester by clacking two boomerangs and evil Edmund threatens to throw his parent to the dingoes in this Aboriginal remake of ‘King Lear’. Fired by the intense relationship of Indigenous peoples to the land, Malthouse Theatre’s production is hugely uneven but thematically rich, and not without its moments. Their Lear’s madness reaches a ululating crescendo to the accompaniment of a didgeridoo, its deep rumbles conjuring a dramatic tension the cast can’t always muster.
Shakespeare’s tragedy begins with the division of a kingdom, petulantly divvied between daughters by the aging ruler. The parallel with contemporary Indiginous experience didn’t escape actor Tom E Lewis, the daddy of the company, whose own community in Northern Australia is being torn apart by struggles over land and rights. ‘You can’t give what you don’t own’, Cordelia tells her father in the opening scene. The Barbican stage is dusted with red earth, into which a wedge of industrial set resembling a mining truck is driven with headlights beaming.
The text is a bubbling mix of English, Kriol and multiple traditional tongues, much of which is easily understood in context: ‘A tragedy this milli milli, our tragedy’ announces Kamahi Djordan King’s casually engaging Fool at the start. The tone tugs oddly between comic soap opera and mystical calamity. A video backdrop switches between the dramatic skies and arid cliffs of the Australian wilderness, and the prosaic homes of a highly sympathetic Goneril and Regan – shacks strung with fairylights and family washing, where a lonely dog noses an upturned plastic chair.
Lewis’s squat and grinning Lear has a live band at his disposal, and steps out in a cowboy shirt and gold crown to the jaunty strains of Aussie reggae anthem ‘We Have Survived (The White Man’s World)’. He doesn’t have the range audiences will expect from a lead actor playing Shakespeare on the Barbican stage, and you suspect the production loses considerable power in leaving the realm of community theatre. But there’s an irreducible resonance in all the swirling red dust, and new meaning in Lear’s eulogy for Cordelia: ‘She’s dead as earth’.