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Review: King Lear

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Yes, I know it’s from Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth, but it applies equally to the eponymous sovereign in Auckland Theatre Company’s King Lear

From the beginning of this Carolean Era play, we see all is not quite right with the king. At age 80 he’s clearly exhausted and wants to retire so comes up with a hare-brained scheme to split his realm  up and give a slice each to his three daughters.

In his decrepitude, he actually thinks he can give it all away and yet still weald power over everyone and spend his declining years visiting his daughters in turn.

In order to win these coveted parcels of land, each daughter has to compliment the king. Yep, that’s it. Flatter daddy’s oversized ego and he will literally give you the keys to the kingdom! The two elder ones Goneril (Andi Crown) and Regan (Jessie Lawrence) try to outdo each other with overblown compliments that are hilariously obvious and sickening, but it works, and Lear happily hands over the deeds. 

His youngest daughter Cordelia (Hanah Tayeb), supposedly his favourite, refuses to say anything. While she loves her father, she won’t play the game. Enraged, Lear kicks her out of the kingdom and her bit of property is settled on her sisters. 

This then kicks off a series of family battles and Lear, learns that power and money corrupt all, even family members. Disowned by his progeny he descends into madness. 

While this is the main plot of the story, there are other subplots involving the aristocracy, including the Earl of Gloucester (Cameron Rhodes) and his son Edgar (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) and daughter Edmond (Beatriz Romilly).

It all gets rather messy, violent, and incredibly sad. 

The king is of course, is at the centre of all the action, and it is his delusions that lead to tragedy. The role was in the very safe and capable hands of Michael Hurst who created an incredibly powerful and searing depiction of Lear. In the beginning was the confident swagger and breathtaking temper, but later, the descent into heartbreaking mania and grief. It was a masterful delivery. 

There were many other capable performances as well. In particular Rhodes as Gloucester provided the perfect counterbalance to Lear’s shallowness; and the three daughters showed a flair for the theatrical as well as the comedic. Beatriz Romilly as Edmund was quite extraordinary, and Adam Burrell made his role of Oswald a delight. 

But, there was an issue I had with this production and that is in regards to the delivery of the dialogue itself by some in the cast. 

Shakespeare’s sentences are dense and packed with meaning. It is vital therefore that when delivering those lines, it be done carefully and artfully, otherwise the beauty, lyricism, and meaning can be lost. 

In this production of Lear, there seemed to be different styles of performance among the actors – some were more ‘naturalistic’ in their delivery, whereas others seemed to follow a more traditional way of speaking. This mismatch proved to be a little jarring. There were moments when really powerful lines were slurred or disempowered by actors not enunciating clearly. 

An exemplar of how to get it right was provided by Romilly. She seemed to take a confident delight in portraying Edmund in such a commanding way that I actually wanted her to win, and get this, Edmund is a murderous, narcissistic bastard, both literally and figuratively. 

That’s quite some achievement. 

Romily did this by enunciating clearly and deliberately. She moved effortlessly and almost flirted and wooed the audience while sharing her internal monologue with us. She did all this without it feeling artificial. That is how you do Shakespeare.

It doesn’t matter if the bard’s works are modernised and played with, thats a good thing, but the language is so incredible that it needs a steady nerve and experience to do it justice. 

I’m not trashing the production in saying this. It was a remarkable piece of theatre, ambitious in scale and staging, and quite innovative and entertaining.

KING LEAR

13 June – 9 July 2023

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