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King Lear

By William Shakespeare
Presented by the State Theatre Company with the Adelaide Festival Centre
At the Dunstan Playhouse
Until November 21st

John Gaden and Sarah Snook

King Lear is considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's best works, and it has been my favorite since I studied it in excruciating detail in year twelve. In 2006 I saw a production by AC Arts (interestingly, where the extras for this production were drawn from), but this production, directed by Adam Cook was my first professional outing, and it did not disappoint.

Lear tells the story of two men and their children, and what happens when parents abandon their children and when children play their parents; who do we choose to listen to, and who do we trust? It is really an interesting play because after the initial set up, it is largely plot-less for the back four acts (as written, not presented); rather, it is a play studying the character arcs after the initial fallouts. This is not to say the plot doesn't develop, but the true development is within the characters, largely coming to term with, or going crazy from ignoring, their predicament. While the traditional "rule of thumb" to define a Shakespeare tragedy is by the end of the play, everyone is dead - and in no play is this more true than Lear - I once heard someone describe the true tragedy of these plays is the characters coming to the understanding over the difference between what we want and how we see ourselves in the world, with the reality of where we really stand. When Lear (John Gaden) chooses to give up power of the kingdom to his three daughters, he still expects - and demands - that he be treated exactly like he always was, and when he cannot reconcile this vision with his daughters Regan (Martha Lott) and Goneril (Victoria Longley), he is driven out of their homes.

The primary story starts when Lear asks his daughters to tell him of their love in exchange for the kingdom, a truly impossible question, because through asking the question and demanding an answer, the very answer than Lear demands cannot exist. By asking for an exact construct in which to define ones love, and an exact measurable reward that will come from the answer, the love itself cannot exist. While Regan and Goneril choose to respond in the way in which gets them the most tangible gain, Cordellia (Sarah Snook, doubling as the Fool) realises the paradox presented within Lear's question, and so chooses to say nothing. It is through Lear's short-sightedness and shock that he cannot see it is through her logic to the actual heart she possesses.

While it is easy to paint Regan and Goneril as villains right from the onset, Shakespeare's writing is much too sophisticated for that. While clearly calculating in the opening scene, where Lear tells his daughters the details of how he will divide his kingdom, in the following scene, where they discuss how their father has always loved and cared for Cordillia the most, it is easy to understand why they choose to respond the way they did. This is not to say Regan and Goneril get off easy – while this, and other early actions, such as refusing Lear his hundred knights can be explained and understood, the power of these decisions takes over, until they are truly evil and manipulative characters. Lott and Longley grab onto this manipulation with both hands, and it is brilliant to watch them transform from women who only want what is best for themselves, to wanting to make sure no-one else can have anything.

This is Gaden's third performance in the title role (and the first in my lifetime, if I wanted to make people feel old / myself feel ridiculously young), and in interviews he has said it is his best performance of Lear ever. That is certainly not hard to believe, because it is, in fact, hard to believe anyone could possibly give a better performance than Gaden in this production. Lear covers an amazing arc throughout the play, going from a point of absolute power to a man whose mind has been completely destroyed. Completely at one with the role, you never once feel you are watching Gaden act - you are just watching him be - and it is heart wrenching and soul-destroying.

Snook gives a fine performance as the Fool, but it is through Cordiellia she is really given a chance to shine and show her talent. The doubling of Cordellia and the Fool is mostly successful; while I am very familiar with the play, I did wonder how some audience members coped with Kent and Edgar appearing in assumed identities coupled with the doubling of Cordellia and the Fool. Interestingly, in the two productions I have seen of Lear the Fool was played by a woman. But nonetheless Snook gives a very talented and funny portrayal of the Fool (complete with soft shoe shuffle and magic tricks).

Edmund (Renato Fabretti) is a demonic character from the start. In our true introduction to him, he looks at the audience and tells us it is in his innate nature to see how far he can go, how much he can destroy - not as an act from gods, but as an act of himself. He uses his strength to manipulate and seduce everyone into his plans - his brother, his father, Regan and Gonerill - and the raw sexuality of Fabretti certainly seduces the audience (well, it at least seduced me). As an audience member I found it strange and confronting to be so taken by a character which is so clearly evil; while the characters only saw the side Edmund presented to them, the audience is privileged a view into his psyche, and I would like to think I make better choices than that. The fact that I didn't is testament to Fabretti's brilliant performance.

I could spend the whole day simply writing about each of the principle actors, because they are all brilliant, with Dennis Olsen (Gloucester), Nathan O’Keefe (Edgar) and Renato Musilino (Cornwall) being particular standouts over those already mentioned. The one thing that needed work among the principle actors was during some of the sword-fights one actor would be half a beat ahead of the other, causing a slight delay in timing and pauses as someone had to catch up. In the final fight between Edgar and Edmund, however, every mark was hit perfectly and it was thrilling. While there were a few which impressed in the student ensemble, largely the gap between them and the principles was vast – but when you are acting against some of Adelaide’s, and Australia’s, best actors, I’m sure it would be hard to hold your own.

It is not often - or ever, I cannot think of a single other example - where the set itself makes me pull back and audibly gasp. But when Victoria Lamb's design for this production quite literally exploded that is exactly what I did. Lamb and Cook have chosen to present Lear pared back production, with minimal sets and modern costuming – although, in saying that, the set appears as if the STC has said “budget? what budget?” and gone all out. In a play which is so much about nature, it is an interesting choice to present the play on a set which is so structured, and it isn't until the second act, in particular the final scenes, where a black sandpit opens up at the front of the stage allowed some 'nature' to come into the piece. Although, while nature may not be presented in the traditional sense, the raw nature of the theatre stage itself is presented, with the sets rising up into the fly zone, where the proscenium is removed, allowing full view of the lighting rigs. Costuming, also by Lamb, uses modern dress, which displaces the play from specific time ties and works very well to reflect the characters so it is the script that really shines. Costumes were presented with mixed success: the outfits for the female ensemble members as maids were ugly to the point of distraction, but for the most part they reflected character and position without being overbearing.

With only a few missteps, Cook has deviled a stunning production of a stunning play, and it should be necessary theatre going for everyone. So many elements are more than worth the price of a ticket on their own, so to see the whole production is truly a bargain.