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Review: King Lear at Neilson Nutshell

Review by Kate Gaul

Bell Shakespeare presents “King Lear” – the third production of this play from the company since its inception. Firstly, the very un-classical, definitely controversial but absolutely undeniable production directed by Barrie Kosky in 1998 (with John Bell in the title role).  Then in 2010 John Bell again played Lear in a Japanese inspired production memorably directed by Marion Potts.  Now, in 2024 Artistic Director Peter Evans stakes his claim on the text.  This time Robert Menzies takes the titular role.  He is one of our living treasures of the theatre now and he imbues the role with compelling physical degradation across the three hours of the play.  His textual clarity is most welcome in a production set in the round (when not every word will be coming at you directly from the stage as actors must have backs turned to at least a portion of the audience). As expected, he excels in the second half as the once stately Lear is now gone mad and wanders a wind-blown heath.  The ferocity of Lear’s observations, his insights and passion are seared into our imaginations, and I challenge anyone not to be moved with these scenes and finally as Lear grieves his dead daughter, Cordelia. But is it enough?

Menzies leads a cast of ten.  Outstanding amongst them is the luminous Lizzie Schebesta (Goneril), Bell veteran James Lugton (Gloucester)and Janine Watson (Kent)

And - although less experienced - Alex King plays a striking Edgar. Stage setting (Anna Tregolan) is a beautiful and resonant copper disc for a stage and the show is echoed in shapes above the stage and then around the auditorium hang copper orbs.  All gleaming and seductive drawing our attention to ever present astrological references. This is a minimalist “King Lear”.  The costumes are an eclectic collection of smart rehearsal room blacks onto which are applied linen tabards, cloaks and other bits and pieces. It’s all very conceptual. The work is mostly measured and sometimes comes across as passionless. The copper disc and orbs are beautifully lit by Benjamin Cisterne, at time unconventionally.  The space has great atmosphere.  All assisted by (the ever reliable) Max Lyandvert’s composition and sound design which adds to the unsettling nature of the environment. At the conclusion of the show and on the way out to the foyer the company has displayed the costume and set renderings in a large scale.  This is a clever deconstruction of what we have just seen, and I imagined my teenage self and burgeoning theatre nerd being very excited about this detailed display.  This is a posh night at the theatre at all levels!

I missed an embodiment of visceral nature of the text; that this was a world torn apart through blindness and deceit.  I think it’s an interesting question about HOW to embody heightened text for a contemporary audience. Hopefully theatre goers will get to see “King Lear” more than once in a lifetime.  If we can hear the text and see the players tempting us with the story and sit in a world imbued with the vision of directors, designers and other theatre artists then Shakespeare’s genius can touch us.  Bell Shakespeare’s “King Lear” certainly rings in my imagination days after seeing this fresh production.

Image Supplied


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