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BWW Review: Geoffrey Rush Captures The Evolution And Awakening That Comes From The Betrayal and Descent Into Madness As STC's KING LEAR

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Saturday 28th November 2015, 7:30pm Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

Multiple award winner Geoffrey Rush returns to the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) stage as KING LEAR in Neil Armfield's interpretation of the iconic work. Rounding out STC's 2015 program, this pared back production brings the performance and the message to the fore, unfettered by elaborate design.

Armfield does away with extraneous adornment and focuses on the text, drawing on the actors' skill to convey the sense of Royal homes, a bleak hovel and the cliffs of Dover. Set Designer Robert Cousins has created simple spaces in which the tragedy unfolds, commencing with the black box, containing a microphone stand and two basic chairs, that plays host to the King's birthday party. Effects and lighting (Nick Schlieper) help to transform the stage with Alice Babidge's simple costumes reinforcing the set design's minimal indications of a contemporary setting. Composer John Rogers, Simon Barker and Phillip Slater and Sound Designer Stefan Gregory have creates a soundscape to assist in placing the action on the bare stage. The men, including the King are in tuxedos as Lear's three daughters are in evening gowns that each reflect their personality from the Goneril's (Helen Buday) staid classical dark gown, Regan's (Helen Thomson) edgy 1990's white and black dress and Cordelia's (Eryn Jean Norvill) innocent 1950's inspired tea length white lace dress. With the use of a modern era, Armfield has also done away with trying to place the work in England, letting the Australian accents of the actors come through.

Rush captures the tyrannical King's conceit and narcissism as he expects to be showered in verbal declarations of adoration from his daughters. He exposes Lear's cold hearted callous nature as he disinherits his beloved youngest daughter, Cordelia, for her refusal to verbalize her love for him and banishes the loyal Earl of Kent who speaks in her defense. He presents the madness that overtakes Lear when he realizes that his daughters' have deceived him as he is stripped of his rights in their households and he opts not to remain with them in favor of wandering the woods in a storm. He develops the King's awareness of what is important and real from a somewhat dismissive initial response to the Fool's (Robyn Nevin) gag laden but serious philosophy to a compassion and understanding of the naked crazy 'Old Tom'/Edgar (Mark Leonard Winter) and grief as he realises the error of his choices.

Buday presents oldest daughter Goneril with an authority and conservatism in contrast to Thomson's portrayal of middle daughter Regan as the more vicious of the cunning pair. Whilst Buday presents an interpretation of Shakespeare's language that does not sit too heavily in an Australian accent Thomson's delivery expresses more of the Australian inflections and emphasis which further presents Regan as a 'want to be', not really deserving of the position of ruler of half of the country, but desperately needing to be seen to 'have it all'.

As the King's favorite, Norvil presents Cordelia with an innocence and honesty along with a respect. In keeping with the retro dress, she gives Cordelia a well-bred, 1950's society tone that remains calm, polite, 'pure' and devoid of the inflections Thompson injects, ensuring that the text is presented clearly with class and grace. Cordelia is the only character with nothing to hide and Norvil expresses this truth in her calm gentle approach to the character with an honest emotion when her father fails to see that her love is to great that it cannot be expressed in words.

Armfield has chosen to cast Robyn Nevin as the Fool as opposed to the traditional casting of a male in the role but still has her play it as a 'pants' role in shabby old suit and battered trilby. Nevin gives the Fool a wisdom and seriousness countered with dryness to the humor that is accented by Simon Barker and Phillip Slater's musical responses. Whilst for the King's Birthday celebration she is a woman playing a man, in drag, when in the 'Pants' role Nevin has adopted an amusing aging masculine gait and coarse working class tone that expresses a compassion and concern for her master.

Meyne Wyatt presents the deceitful and manipulative illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund as brash and cocky in both his physicality and voice with the Shakespearean English blending well with his broad accent. Edmund's brother, the exiled Edgar, The Earl of Gloucester's legitimate heir, is first gentle and foppish as the framed innocent and then evolves to presenting a honest, sometimes confronting reason and philosophy as he wanders in little more than strands of gold tinsel, passing himself off as the homeless, mad, 'Old Tom'. Max Cullen presents the brother's father as frail and doddery as he stutters through lines and has more hesitant movements which makes him easier to sympathize with when he realizes Edmund's plot.

This is an interesting interpretation that focuses on the story rather than distracting the audience with ornate sets. The simple symbolism expressed throughout from the expression of death to the transformation of the set to portray different locations and times is in keeping with this focused direction. Given that it is text driven, it would however benefit from fine tuning of sound balances and vocal clarity to ensure that the detailed dialogue is not lost which may render the work more confusing to those that are unfamiliar with the plot.

Sydney Theatre Company's production of KING LEAR is a wonderful opportunity to see some of Australian Theatre's greats stretch themselves outside of their comfort zones with Rush having previously held the more comic Fool's role rather than the weighty King and Nevin inhabiting a male role and finding the balance between his seriousness and comedy.

KING LEAR

Sydney Theatre Company

Rosyln Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

24 November 2015 - 9 January 2016


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