Director Michael Kantor is not shy about undertaking ambitious projects and the Malthouse’s production of The Shadow King is no different.
The production has been a few years in the making and Kantor recalls that at the time he was very were “interested in discussions with Indigenous theatre makers and had always had a keen eye on collaborating with Tommy E Lewis.”
A remarkable performer and according to Kantor “a man who straddles many worlds” the two were intent on collaborating to create a new work. Motivated by the desire to adapt “a seminal white man text” and in turn using, playing and in Lewis’ own words “dancing” with the text has led the all-Indigenous cast to one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: King Lear.
“Lear jumps out at you,” explains Kantor “The themes of land, land ownership, custodianship of land and the consequences of families arguing over land is a recurrent subject; one that takes place in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.”
As the project developed and more and more people became involved it became clear that the emphasis of this version of King Lear was not Shakespeare’s actual language but the significance of the story and its relationship to the people up north; and for that reason the play employs a range of different languages: English, Kriol as well as languages specific to the different groups up north.
“I presented a stripped back version of Shakespeare’s play in English and after we had played with this for awhile I noticed how a line in language, then in Kriol and then English created a unique rhythm and flow, similar to the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, yet unintentional because this truly reflected how different people up North spoke and it is their voice and in turn, their story we were wanting to share.”
Assistant Director Melodie Reynolds affirms the importance that this is a story that is essentially a western dreamtime narration and yet it is about to be told in a manner that will be potentially volatile; certainly political and yet joyous.
“This production is quite brave to look at the lateral physical violence in our communities and the sad thing is that in some ways we have got used to it. I hope people listen, the mirror has to be put up and we need to acknowledge the issues that are embedded amongst our own people and in our own community.”
Reynolds who only came on board recently is confident that the time is ripe for these stories to be shared: “We need to look at the state of our earth, our mother… how many times can we dig her up? How many times can we drill a hole in a marble until it is no longer a marble? They give Aboriginal fellas a piece of land to fight over and in the meantime other sacred sites are being dug up, culture is being dug up and black audiences we need to open our eyes up to see what is really going on here.”
To offer a glimpse into this highly conflict-ridden world Kantor has deliberately chosen to a minimalist set, yet the main props create powerful statements of their own.
“On stage we have a big lumbering piece of mining machinery and although it is never referred to it makes a statement that something is happening; but the play doesn’t want to point fingers. Instead we want the audience to be able to witness the landscape of the Katherine region, the evocative topography and in some way really access the moments of insights that ultimately come to Lear, too late and at too great a cost”.
It’s also important, as both Kantor and Reynolds point out that Lear’s madness “is better referred to his blindness, it’s a state of mind that develops when you realize how wrong you’ve been and that sudden moment of clarity.”
But despite the fact the play is a tragedy and Lear takes a long time to learn some very simple lessons and when he finally does learn them it too late, the team are committed to creating a work whose strength will be on its ambition and the fact that everyone involved has had a chance at “stirring the stick” during this process.
Ultimately the aim of The Shadow King is to offer a means by which a highly sensitive and oft taboo topic can be explored. The vision of the team is to create a space where debate and discussion (both political and artistic) can develop so as to offer both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences a chance to reflect upon contemporary Australia and the myriad of complexities in our community based relationships and concepts of who owns what and to whom what is owed.
The Shadow King by Tom E. Lewis & Michael Kantor is now playing as part of the 2013 Melbourne Festival. Further details: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
Top right – Tom E. Lewis. Photo – Jeff Busby