Melbourne Shakespeare Company gives their new “MSC Studio” brand a highly auspicious debut with this confidently condensed, genuinely gripping new staging of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy King Lear.
Moving forward from their delightful outdoor seasons, the stated intention of MSC Studio is to produce works that “…are not family friendly and seek to explore some of the darker pieces from Shakespeare’s repertoire.” To say that King Lear fulfills this goal would be something of an understatement, the intense dramatic quality reaching a standard more reflective of long running repertory company.
Full credit to director Ayesha Gibson for the synergy of her conceptual framework, which includes neatly condensing the five-act work to a running time of 105 minutes, casting the roles with an eye to gender fluidity and updating the setting in a way that supports the story telling without even coming close to overwhelming it.
If TV hit Succession has its roots in King Lear, Gibson brings the conceit full circle by setting King Lear in the world of a corporate dynasty, where the boardroom is the modern equivalent of a kingdom. Supporting this vision, set designer Hayley James has Lear’s “throne” sit atop a strewn pile of wheelie office chairs, festooned by strings of discarded faxes.
Gibson has the five acts flow together seamlessly, creating the effect of watching an absorbing movie. At a time when returning to live theatre is still a relatively new experience for audiences, the visceral thrill of watching a large cast buffeted by a mighty storm and engaging in bloody battle is a thrilling experience indeed.
Casting legendary Melbourne veteran Evelyn Krape in the title role is an inspired choice, both for the impact of seeing a female play the type of role that would once have only been written for a man but also for the sheer depth of her acting skills. In early scenes, Krape wins audience affection with deft comic touches far beyond the usual po-faced portrayal of the aging monarch. With the audience on her side, Krape makes Lear’s descent into mania all the more moving. With Lear played by a woman, there is added impact in Lear’s cursing of Goneril to be childless.
Gender fluid casting continues with Lear’s main rival the Earl of Gloucester played by Anthea Davis. As with Krape’s portrayal of Lear, Davis plays Gloucester as a man, creating something of an even playing field in combative scenes between the pair. Davis brings an understated air of sympathy to Gloucester’s awful plight. Kayla Hamill plays Gloucester’s son Edgar in what is perhaps a non-binary interpretation, giving the character an affecting edge of vulnerability.
Costume designer Aislinn Naughton uses splashes of regal crimson, purple and dark green in the otherwise greyscale corporate palette. In a very clever touch, when the Earl of Kent and Edgar each adopt disguises, they take the form of labourers, with the implication that such working-class folk are invisible to the moneyed elite.
Sound designer Ben Keene adds subtle musical underscoring to add tension in key moments. Keene and lighting designer Alex Blackwell combine forces to terrific effect to conjure the storm and the bloody impact of the battlefield.
Prolific veteran Don Bridges is luxury casting as the all too wise Fool. Annabelle Tudor (Regan), Claire Nicholls (Goneril) and Isabella Ferrer (Cordelia) craft distinctive portrayals each of Lear’s daughters. Matthew Connell effectively conveys the underlying doubts and insecurities of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund, successfully rounding the role beyond that of a more one-dimensional villain.
This production of King Lear joins the pantheon of fabled shows for which their first night was also their last; this time, of course, the fault lies solely with the unfortunate timing of Melbourne’s latest snap lockdown. It is strongly hoped that the remainder of the season will be able to be rescheduled, allowing this memorable production to reach the wider audience it fully deserves.
King Lear was scheduled to play at fortyfivedownstairs theatre, Melbourne until 3 June. Upcoming performances are currently cancelled due to the Melbourne lockdown; for updates from Melbourne Shakespeare Company, click here.
Photos: Chelsea Neate