The Shadow King is an indigenous interpretation of King Lear, co-created by Tom E Lewis, who plays the lead, and Michael Kantor who directs. Uncle Jack Charles welcomes everyone to country then the play starts in an almost incidental sort of way with live music.
Lear's kingdom, which, as we know, at the beginning of the play he has decided to divide between his three daughters, is a vast tract of outback yielding wealth to mining interests. The set creates a sense of a bigness and space with ochre sand on the ground and a remarkable construction centrestage which does duty as a castle, homestead, pub, gaol and a mining truck 'with wheels as big as your house.' Lear makes his first appearance at the top of a set of stairs built into this edifice, leaping into a performance of vitality and personality maintained by Lewis throughout. A large screen provides views of northern Australia and works to change scenes; this is distracting though, it might work better as a backdrop at ground level. The screen being above the stage seems to suggest something about heaven being on earth or that the land is all around us and we are within; you wonder if and how the screen is symbolic. The lighting is gorgeous – the warmth and richness of outback colours given life in the theatre.
Lewis makes a splendid monarch and most of the best moments in this production are his. Kamahl Djordan as his Fool tends to steal the show, his rapport with Lear is personal, touching and lively. The other standout is Jimi Bani as Edmund, scheming and charismatic.The text is an intriguing mash-up of Shakespeare, local dialects and Kriol; when it works it's rhythmical and mesmerising with a unique cadence. Even though The Shadow King isn't meant to be King Lear, rather an adaptation thereof, this aspect of its language could be better developed; the potential for something aurally ravishing wasn't fully achieved and at times the text seems simply too loose.
The dialogue is let down badly, too, by elements of humour which don't fit the story and just shouldn't be there. There is a scene towards the end where Edmund has incarcerated Lear and Cordelia in gaol. 'We're not the first of our mob to end up here', she says and this falls woefully flat; gags are out of place in the narrative by this stage although we know they reflect a certain jokey style of communication prevalent in indigenous cultures (the actors were given free rein in development to tell the story in their own words). Some of the musical choices seem incongruously funky and cheerful but the band is terrific; the music is hugely enjoyable.
The performances veer wildly in quality, with Lear, Edmund and the Fool simply unmet by some of the other cast members. The deeply tragic aspects of human pomposity and misplaced values in the original story lie beneath the business on stage, where the relationship between white and indigenous Australia, the relationship of everyone to country, and the history of appropriation of land making for too many ingredients In the mix. The Shadow King tries to do too much at once. Because the overall tone is uneven the production doesn't give you that lingering, felt sense of personal tragedy. Not through the dialogue. It's there in the most 'traditionally indigenous' moments, with references to the spiritual (Edgar's Poor Tom becomes an elemental from the outback), with song, with chant and dance but something in the work feels held back; it's as though the production is afraid to engage fully with the tragic elements of the Lear story because the politics of the Australian story of colonisation, of displacement from country, overwhelm it.
Malthouse Theatre & Melbourne Festival presents
The Shadow King
Co-created by Tom E. Lewis & Michael Kantor
Directed by Michael Kantor
Venue: Merlyn Theatre | Malthouse
Dates: 11 – 27 October, 2013