The Shadow King | Malthouse TheatrePhoto – Jeff Busby

Like that of a smashed hourglass, the stage is covered in a large stretch of red earth, scored with lines of land and water. Time and place has been reconfigured: no longer the early years of the 1600s in England, instead a very current portrait of a community in Northern Australia. It is here, in this rust and metal reality that the story of King Lear has been translated and transposed, rethought, re-worded and re-contextualised.

The result of a conversation between director Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis, The Shadow King is an adaptation and translation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear which draws into sharp focus notions of family, power, influence and loyalty within the indigenous community. Honouring cultural protocols, objects, songs and representation of cultural identity have been authorised by the Elders of the cast and crew.

The Shadow King tells the story of King Lear who, in a flight of foolish fancy, decides he is sick of living under white man rule decides to retire to live an easy life and divides up his kingdom based upon the of this daughters (Rarriwuy HickCordelia, Jada AlbertsGoneril and Natasha WanganeenRegan). His youngest daughter Cordelia resists entering into competition via a verbal gush of platitudes offered by her sisters. Traveling from house to house with his mob, Lear is soon unwelcome and displaced. In his place we see the hungry ambition of Edmund (Jimi Bani) surface – who orchestrates the framing of his brother murder, seduces and then rapes both Goneril and Regan. The world is rendered unjust and brutal – and the tragedy compounds when Gloucester (Frances Djulibing) is blinded and Lear and Cordelia are locked away in a dirty prison cell.

This is not Shakespeare’s King Lear, nor does it have to be. Nor is the intent to transfer Shakespearean English into the mouths of Indigenous Australians. This is a “white man dreaming” which has been commandeered through aesthetic, tradition and languages into a new story. A story where in the “kingdom” is transposed into a harsh reality – carports stuffed with clutter, a weatherboard house in the outback. A story wherein the courtiers are a mob of musicians. A story wherein the images of exile and gaol are far harsher – due to geography and a social resonance we can’t escape nor deny.

Here we have the Northern Australian experience – the blinding lights (Paul Jackson) from a truck. A blend of English, Kriol and Yolngu Matha (Translated by the Cast Jada Alberts, Jimi Bani, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Damion Hunter, Kamahi Djordon King, Tom E LewisDjakapurra Munyarryun, Natasha Wanganeen). Film images (Natasha Gadd, Rhys Graham, Murray Lui) of houses and land and light. Music which forms and informs the story as soundtrack, as anthems (Music Consultant Iain Grandage, Musical Arrangements and Direction John Rodgers, Band Selwyn Burns, Bart Willoughby, Djakapurra Munyarryun) – an experience which for many metropolitan-based Australians is as strange and unfamiliar as Shakespeare’s England. The experience is at once irreverent, welcoming, brutal and confronting.

This is as much a production which serves to remind us about our connection to land and place and community, as it is about the tragic flaw within humans to satisfy their greed and vanity. The Shadow King is an incredible testament to a vision which seeks to break open and subvert cultural and theatrical assumptions through scale, through premise, thorough the integrity of community consultation.

Truly this is a landmark production which not only offers a fresh, local linguistic perspective on a well worn and transplanted classic – but paves the way for a new dialogue about authorship and storytelling.

Malthouse Theatre
The Shadow King
Co-Created by Tom E. Lewis & Michael Kantor

Directed by Michael Kantor

Venue: Bay 17 | Carriageworks, Eveleigh
Dates: 23 – 26 January 2014
Tickets: $62 – $56

Part of the 2014 Sydney Festival