Saturday, 19 December 2015

King Lear, Sydney Theatre company, Ros Packer theatre

Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfeild are an unbeatable combination. They've triumphed in plays like "Small Poppies", "The Alchemist", "Diary of a Madman" and "Exit the King" (the last one also conquering Broadway). Now they've thrown themselves against Shakespeare's most challenging tragedy,

And there are some very good performances wrapped up in this, not least of whom is Rush. I confess I feared he was miscast - my platonic ideal of Lear is a milataristic, dictatorial man who is brought shabbily undone by his age and carelessness (the only Lear I've really enjoyed seeing was Julian Glover at Shakespeare's Globe in london about 14 years ago), not the more intellectual type that Rush normally plays. But Rush does have madness in him, as well as all the requisite emotional resources that go with being one of our finest actors - he can excerise ruthless authority and gentle whimsy in very quick succession.

Elsewhere, a lot of the acting honours are on the evil side of the coin. Helen Thompson is a fashonista Regan, and Colin Moody is at his sneering, impulsive best as her husband, Cornwall. Helen Buday's Goneril twists and turns wonderfully. And chief among the mischief makers is Meyne Wyatt's Edmund, who plays every side off against each other with ruthless glee.

Elsewhere, things aren't as clear. Robyn Nevin's fool has a number of good ideas attached, and she plays them well, but ... well, bluntly Shakespeare's handle on the character is pretty uneven, and the production doesn't make his disappearance any more feasible. Eryn Jean Norvill is a very flat Cordelia - again, Shakespeare doesn't really offer her much beyond "idealised figure of goodness" but we don't really even get that. Max Cullen's Glouchester is adquate but he's a little lost in the crowd rather than being the second-lead that the character can be.And Mark Leonard Winter's Edgar feels (and, again, I blame Shakespeare) like two or three separate characters - the ineffectual dupe of the first few scenes, Mad Tom for the majority, and the avenging hero in the final sequence - all are played strongly, but they don't really cohere into one person.

Robert Cousin's set design is impressive but it's impressive in a very Sydney-House-style way - it has its biggest effects at the beginning of act two, where a combination of light and space and fog means the characters appear to be wandering in a void. This is a design style I've seen used before by both Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone, and it works better with their slightly colder style than with Armfields' usual warmth. In general, this is a weird case of Armfield seeming to follow other director's design and production trends, rather than creating something that feels like nothing you've seen before (a la "Secret River" or "Cloudstreet", which felt very much from the heart, rather than from the last ten other shows you've seen).

In short - there is good work here, but it's also got a fair bit of derivitiveness and flatness. Plus I'm never quite able to take Lear to my heart, and this didn't change that.

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