Melbourne Theatre Company: Queen Lear, adapted and directed by Rachel McDonald
It’s difficult to find a kind word for this “cheerless, dark and deadly” production of Lear. Many of its individual assets turn out to be liabilities when combined. The stylish set, with chains spilling from the flies like plaited metal vines, is so spacious that cast members need to be amplified to be heard, even in a modern mid-sized theatre.
The decision to make The Fool into a manifestation of Lear’s own madness -- voices in the monarch’s head -- is an appealing one, but the chipmunk execution is amateurish.
With a couple of notable exceptions -- Robyn Nevin, Robert Menzies and Greg Stone head a short list -- the verse and meaning of the play are massacred. If you’re unfamiliar with Lear, you might have a tough time keeping up, especially with the deletion of Cordelia’s suitors: the King of France and Duke of Burgundy.
Beyond heightening our consciousness of Lear’s poor judgement and lack of wisdom, surprisingly little is made of the key decision to turn King Lear into Queen Lear. Adelaide and Melbourne audiences have seen Nevin play Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, in the 1990s, we know she is skilled enough to play any role, including Lear as a man. The textual changes to accommodate the sex change of the monarch are slight, but the replacement of each and every ‘nuncle’ with ‘auntie’ is jarring.
Nevin plays Lear as a carousing tyrant in a rose red dress with a crown of Cruella de Vil hair. She inspires little sympathy -- the loyalty shown to her, if anything, is a cause for puzzlement -- and her descent into madness is more bathetic than pathetic. Lear’s slurring and mumbling might be justified, in context, but poetry is the loser in this rendering. Her voice, and the drama, are lost in the void.
Heaven’s vault should crack in a production of Lear, be it a traditional King Lear, a gender-reassigned Queen Lear or a plain old Mister Lear as Laurence Olivier styled Peter Brook’s great 1962 production at Stratford.
Lear is a cranky play with a vain and ridiculous old goat of a monarch and a trio of daughters who wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy tale. Cordelia is a dowryless Cinderella who marries well, Goneril and Regan are the wicked and manipulative step-sisters. They only fail because, finally, they turn their venomous fangs on themselves.
Lear is not a robust, point-and-shoot play. Great acting alone doesn’t guarantee success. (Its absence, however, is a deal-breaker.) A director needs a sure grip on the material and a vision, a strategy, a way of selling this grotesque tale to audiences.
Inevitably, by changing the patriarch to a matriarch, director and dramaturg Rachel McDonald heightens our awareness of gender roles in Lear. We note that temporal power is destined to flow to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Lear’s elder daughters, rather than the daughters themselves, but that Goneril and Regan are powerful players and strategists in their own rights.
Regan is a co-conspirator with her husband Cornwall. Goneril, however, works solo. This production seeks to justify, or excuse, Goneril’s ‘unnatural’ power by placing her husband Albany in a wheelchair.
A traditional production of Lear can play out as a seizure of power from a dangerously foolish -- perhaps already senile -- king by his disenfranchised daughters. Here, though, it reads as payback on a bitchy, manipulative and prodigal mother by two daughters whose resentment is overripe. Something to offend every feminist.
It’s fair to say that this MTC production has a way to go before it hits its stride -- the first performance was one I would have happily abandoned at interval -- but this Lear has potentially fatal flaws in conception, direction, aspects of the design and in its acting. Its strengths are few and not significant enough to compensate for the flaws.
Robert Menzies, as the suicidally loyal Kent, is so good -- so passionate -- that he almost manages to persuade us that Lear is worthy of his love. Greg Stone is a persuasive as Albany, a little less so as the oily Oswald. Robyn Nevin’s performance in the title role is technically very good, and might work brilliantly on film or in a more intimate staging, but her coiled and centripetal energy rarely travels as far as the front row.
Instead of breaking our hearts, Queen Lear merely breaks our spirits.
Queen Lear. Direction and dramaturgy by Rachel McDonald. Set and costume design by Tracy Grant Lord. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Composition and sound design by Iain Grandage. Melbourne Theatre Company. At the Sumner Theatre. July 12. Season ends August 18.