1. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  2. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  3. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  4. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  5. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  6. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  7. Bell Shakespeare's King Lear
    Photograph: Bell Shakespeare/Brett Boardman
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Pier 2/3, Dawes Point
  • Recommended

Review

King Lear

4 out of 5 stars

Robert Menzies delivers an “absolutely arresting” turn as the mad monarch in Bell Shakespeare’s stripped-back staging of the Bard’s famous tragedy

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Time Out says

King Lear is an odd one in the Bard’s canon. Drawing on the royal figure found in murky depths of British legend, the play straddles the line between Shakespeare’s historical tomes (your various Henrys, Macbeth, and so on) and his overt fantasies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Produced late in the playwright’s life, its violence and cruelty recall the early excesses of Titus Andronicus – if anything, the play’s general pessimism makes the horrors hit harder. It’s heavily weighted with the cynicism of old age – every character, from the titular monarch to nominal hero Edgar, is foolish at best, a ruthless villain at worst. It is, at base, a bit of a bummer.

But regardless, we’re fascinated by it. The role of Lear has drawn to it some of the greatest actors of their given age, and the play itself is not only much-adapted to other media, but has inspired countless derivative works – and the lines there are blurry, too. Kurosawa’s magisterial 1985 film Ran is considered a direct(ish) adaptation, but Lear’s legacy can be found in everything from Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-winning novel, 1000 Acres, to Yellowstone (Learism shows up in a lot of epic Westerns, with land and legacy being frequently recurring themes).

...whether he’s raging against the storm or self-flagellating in his grief, [Menzies'] turn is absolutely arresting.

Bell Shakespeare’s latest production, helmed by Artistic Director Peter Evans, mixes a fairly traditional take on the play with modern, minimalist styling. It’s staged in the round, with props kept to a minimum (just a few stools and knives, for the most part), leaving Anna Tregloan’s set uncluttered – the action unfolding beneath the rings of a pagan-inspired, sculptural solar system which extends out over the audience. Meanwhile, Tregloan’s deceptively simple costumes (cloaks over utilitarian black) evoke a deep sense of character and history with zero fussiness. Benjamin Cisterne’s lights are stark, and Max Lyandvert’s sound design unobtrusive. The volume on every element has been dialled down, bar the performances.

Veteran actor Robert Menzies offers us a suitably petulant, tetchy Lear, a man torn between officious self-regard and mounting regret at the cost of his actions as he seeks to peacefully divide his kingdom between his three daughters – Regan (Tamara Lee Bailey), Goneril (Lizzie Schebesta) and Cordelia (Melissa Kahraman). In a fit of pique, he exiles the latter over a perceived slight, leading to a murderous struggle of succession – especially when the conniving Edmund (Darius Williams, making a meal of one of Shakespeare’s most underappreciated villains), bastard son of the loyal Earl of Gloucester (James Lugton, radiating dignity even after his eyes are gouged out) starts plotting against his legitimate half-brother, Edgar (Alex King). 

It can be challenging to track the various shifting alliances and rivalries at first, and not least because Lear’s political framework is largely divorced from actual history. One of Bell Shakespeare’s most admirable qualities as a company has always been their gift for clarity – a gift for making the plays accessible for modern audiences. Here, that quality isn’t absent, but it’s a little muted, and so perhaps this production shouldn’t be a newcomer’s first Lear. Post-intermission, however, all the table-setting is done with – and we careen full-tilt towards Edgar and Edmund’s climactic duel (which is staged as an energetic buckler-and-broadsword tilt by acclaimed fight-wrangler Nigel Poulton) and the story’s tragic final act. 

While we do occasionally get a sense of reciting-the-lines rather than feeling-the-words here and there, the performances are uniformly strong. Melissa Kahraman excels in the dual roles of Cordelia and Lear’s Fool, while Tamara Lee Bailey bailey makes a femme fatale of Regan. Alex King brings suitably heroic energy to the role of Edgar and a physical sense of lunacy when essaying his cover identity of mad beggar Tom O’Bedlam. (As ever, King Lear has a “more is always better” approach to plotting). 

Of course, it’s Menzies’ show at the end of the day – and whether he’s raging against the storm or self-flagellating in his grief, his turn is absolutely arresting. All up, this King Lear is a wonderful production, but fresh audiences may want to do a little homework before the curtain is raised. 

King Lear is playing in The Neilson Nutshell at Bell Shakespeare's home in Walsh Bay until July 20, 2024. Tickets start at $37 and you can book here.

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Details

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Pier 2/3 6:30 pm
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Pier 2/3 7:00 pm
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Pier 2/3 7:00 pm
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Pier 2/3 7:00 pm
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Pier 2/3 1:00 pm
From $37
Pier 2/3 7:00 pm
From $37
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