Shakespeare 400: And now for something completely different

An Australian aboriginal version of King Lear? In the commercial theatre? It doesn’t get a lot more different than The Shadow King.

Shadow King, Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

The language isn’t Shakespeare’s but rather a clever mix of contemporary English and aboriginal; so what we get is the familiar punctuated by the weird and wonderfully ‘other’ rhythms of the indigenous.

Lear (Tom E Lewis) is a clown and his Fool (Kamahi Djordan King) is a camp narrator prone to cross-dressing. Goneril and Regan are modern lasses wearing shorts. Edmund – the performance of the evening from Jimi Bani – is a charismatic, virile life force in leather. Gloucester is a woman. Lear’s ‘retinue’ is a ragtaggle bunch of musicians placed on the side of the stage and comprising, among the guitars and percussion, a didgeridoo (natch) and a singer with the most astonishingly resonant voice you will currently hear on a London stage.

The set is a steeply-raked platform with equally steep stairs leading to the abodes of Goneril and Regan and more besides. (Not easy to perform on I would imagine.) A projected backdrop takes us right into the red outback and the precipice from which Gloucester doesn’t jump and into the bush houses of Lear’s daughters. Downstage the characters play with fine red sand, probably imported.

Shadow King Fool and Edgar (theage.com.au)

Kamahi Djordan King as the Fool and Damion Hunter as Edgar/Poor Tom (theage.com.au)

Running at just over an hour and a half without an interval this is not an in-depth version of the much-loved and often-hated original, but what we lose in character development – Lear’s ‘conversion’ at the hands of Edgar/Poor Tom does not have the resonance of the original for instance – we gain, many times over, in atmosphere and visual impact. The creators (Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis) and dramaturg (Marion Potts) stick loosely to the somewhat simplified plot – there is no Cornwall or Kent for instance – but in the end it is the land that is the star, which for a play that begins with the dividing of a kingdom is utterly appropriate.

As far as I could tell the cast is 100% aboriginal. If you are interested in something completely different, get along to the Barbican this week.

The Shadow King is a Malthouse Theatre production and runs at the Barbican Centre until 2 July. www.barbican.org.uk 

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