Brilliant King Lear rework

The Shadow King. Picture: Jessica Wyld Photography

The Shadow King
Adapted by Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis from Shakespeare
4.5 stars
Heath Ledger Theatre

Review: David Zampatti

In The Shadow King, a rich old Aboriginal man divides his lands between his two eldest daughters after disinheriting his youngest in a fit of pique.

He descends into destitution and madness, finally learning, too late, that her love was his one, true possession.

So let's be clear: despite its title, its language and its setting, The Shadow King is King Lear, Shakespeare's, and all theatre's, supreme drama.

In a remarkable achievement, Michael Kantor and Tom E. Lewis (who also plays the king) have stripped half its length, all but eight of its 21 characters (no sadistic Cornwall, no grasping Albany, no loyal Kent), changed the gender of one of them (Gloucester), presented a radically altered text in five indigenous languages as well as English, and delivered an always satisfying and sometimes transcendent version of the play.

If you are going to set Shakespeare in a specific time and place - not just dressing it in period costume and calling the result an interpretation - it has to be consistent with its milieu. In this regard, The Shadow King is a rare success.

I had my doubts that the British system of kingship, family, possession, inheritance and disinheritance could be legitimately applied to Aboriginal society and culture. I've been convinced, though, that the codification of land title, the commodification of the value of land by royalty payments (the cash proceeds of which can be owned or controlled), and the resultant establishment of virtual fiefdoms, jealousies, internecine conflicts and corruption in many Aboriginal communities are analogous with Shakespeare's play.

What a brilliant, audacious subtext that is!

Just as brilliant are Kantor's direction and design (with Paul Jackson and David Miller). The red-dirt stage is dominated by a monolithic, shadowy structure. At times it is a gigantic earthmover, a cave or a lock-up, but more than that it represents the whitefella world that looms over indigenous lives.

Bart Willoughby, Selwyn Burns, Jason Tamiru and the incredible Djakapurra Munyarryun bring decades of indigenous music, from bands such as No Fixed Address and Coloured Stone, to proceedings.

The casting is faultless. Natasha Wanganeen (Regan), Jada Alberts (Goneril) and Rarriwuy Hick (Cordelia), are lovely, deluded and repellent as Lear's three daughters. Kamahi Djordon King is an honest and wise, cheerful and sad Fool (though the mighty storm scenes, the pinnacle of Shakespeare's genius, are sadly, if understandably, somewhat perfunctory).

Edgar is an under-appreciated character in Lear but Damion Hunter captures his diffidence and hesitancy in the early scenes, and, once he is Mad Tom, in white body paint and ceremonial feathers, he bursts into vivid life.

Edgar's murderous half-brother Edmund is given a performance of deadly muscularity by Jimi Bani, with the smile of an African despot and the eyes of a predator.

Frances Djulibing is heartbreaking as their mother. Blind and betrayed, her dilly bag, the repository of her mob's artefacts, broken and scattered, she wanders, looking for death.

I took some time to take to Lewis' Lear. He’s an old bantam rooster, chest out, legs flailing, King James Brown, and, in the early scenes, sometimes more madcap than mad.

But when Lear is rejected by his daughters and left to fend for himself in the wild, his madness is real, wretched and enveloping, and Lewis grasps and inhabits it.

As Munyarryun's phenomenal, keening voice sings all the sorrow of tens of thousands of years, signed, date stamped and filed; as Djulibing falls to the ground from the cliff her son imagines for her; as Lewis dances, distracted, in the dust, the unsurpassable art that lies at the heart of Shakespeare's greatest play, and this memorable, iconic, imagining of it, rises up from the red dirt and takes us in.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting