Thursday, July 12, 2012

Queen Lear, Oh, Dear

Being in this state of in-between-jobness, I've been trying to keep my costs to a minimum - but seeing preview tickets to Queen Lear at the Melbourne Theatre Company going for half the normal going rate, I was keen to snap one up - even with the funds being reigned in. Of the MTC Season, this was the play I most wanted to see.

Being the inveterate Shakespeare nerd, Lear is one of my very favourite plays. It always has been, ever since we were taught it as part of the Year 11 curriculum. A play of ageing, of foolish decisions, of jealousy, revenge, dysfunctional families and love. There is something in it for everybody.

More curious was I to see how changing Lear from a man to a woman would come about. Lear, the powerful man in his swansong, a man filled with pride and rage and dishonour, only begins to the see the world as it really is after going mad - just as Gloucester can only see how things really are after being blinded. There is the loyal Kent, the scheming Edmund, the loving Edgar, and the twisted sisters, Goneril and Regan. And of course, Lear's Fool - in many ways, the conscious of the king.

So, yeah, here I am pondering how what is a complex play about fathers and daughters would translate to a mother / daughter scenario.

Making matters a liitle more complex, a friend had gone to the performance the night before and walked out at intermission. Her words were,"Draw your own conclusions."

I'm fearless  - my curiosity suitably piqued. However, the MTC have done a couple of superlative Shakespeare's in the last few years. Ewan Leslie's Richard III was PHENOMENAL - and his Hamlet was bloody good too. So having Robyn Niven as Lear - okay, great actress. But still. how was this going down?

I'm going to preface this review by saying that this is not the worst Shakespeare I've seen. Not even close. There were some really good things about the whole performance. There were some pretty dreadful things about it too.

Of the bad - and I'll get these out of the way. In no order:
  • Why did Regan look like a cheap hooker with a pole up her arse?
  • How come Lear sounded like she was from Camberwell and Cordelia from Broadmeadows?
Okay, I've got that out.

I found that making Lear a woman incredibly thought provoking, but it messed with the dynamics of the play for a lot of it. Though sometimes worked - in particular, the early scenes where Lear goes between the daughter's places - effective. But the relationship with Cordelia, and her role was mostly taken out - made emotionally connecting to her next to impossible. That and Cordelia sounded like a bogan.

Then there's the issue of the Fool - Lear's relationship with his/her Fool is often critical to the play - this could have been handled SOOOOO much better. Didn't like that bit at all.

The staging, at times effective, at times underlit, with chains hanging from the ceiling was cool - again, more could have been done. After the joys of Richard III and Hamlet, a bit of a let down. I loved how when they put Kent in the stocks he was elevated in a cage - well effective. The set could have been used to such a great effect - it felt like they missed their chance with that.

Of the great things about the play -I did enjoy the staging, the the three tonne of chain they used hanging from the ceiling was suitably menacing.

For me, Richard Piper (Gloucester) and Rhys Muldoon (Kent) kept the whole play together. Gloucester, in particular, was wonderful. The fellow playing Edgar was also very good, and thankfully easy on the eye, especially since I spent most of the performance in a pair of cycle shorts and nothing more.

As for Lear - Robyn Niven gives it her all - and hit the mark at time, fell short in others. Am I willing to give her the benefit of the doubt - yes - some dodgy line cuts, the odd bit of strange directing - not her fault - she was making do with what she was given. The Storm Scene - wonderful. The early scenes between her and the two older daughters great. But the end left me cold.

I also found many of the scene and line cuts unfathomable - and Cordelia  - oh dear - just nowhere near the calibre of the rest of the cast - barely seen through the play and lacking some presence. The actress is a fine Australian actress and I've loved her on television and film. Here, she just annoyed me.

In all, a decent, but flawed performance - over-promising and under-delivering, but also brownie points for trying.

For me, the scene that cut me to the quick - where they plucked out Gloucester's eyes. I find this hard to watch at the best of times - made all the more poignant but the fact that an Aunt of mine last year tripped, fell on a piece of wire, lost and eye, her sight, her mind and finally her life. I sat there shaking in my chair through the whole scene.

Never before has this scene effected me in such a way.

Until now, I never thought that life and art could be in synch.


Elisabeth said...

Great review, Panda. I value you the roundness of your appraisal. You refer to it all, the good, the bad and the ugly - what works and what doesn't and acknowledge your own subjectivity.

Kath Lockett said...

Hmmmm..... as you know, I've never enjoyed Shakespeare but you do make me wonder if I should revisit his works sometime...?

....and right this second my daughter's watching Robin Niven as the federal court judge in 'The Castle' !

magical_m said...

One of my first roles out of drama school (about 10 years ago) was in a production of Lear. Our version was slightly different in that the whole cast was gender-reversed... it was a Queen and three sons (and their wives). Edgar, Edmund and Gloucester were female... the only one who remained as originally written was The Fool. I played Albany.

The fun part (for me!) of our version was that all the women got to be in the power positions and we carried (and used!) swords and daggers; while the men were weaponless. We had loads of school kids come and see the show (3 week sold out season!) and in our post-show Q&A sessions, it was fascinating to hear from them how it helped them understand the themes of the play and what they thought of the men not being able to physically defend themselves.

I'm keen to see MTC's version, but since tix are so expensive, I'm unlikely to be able to, so your review was great to read - thanks!

The Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Pand,

Making Lear a woman does make it marginally more interesting - but the margin is so tiny that I still wouldn't go for it.

Sorry ...