The first image of Neil Armfield's production of King Lear is of a microphone, before the curtain, centre stage. Curtain rises and Marilyn Monroe strides onto the stage, grabs the microphone, and sings her breathy happy birthday song. It is Lear's 80th birthday and the fool's mock Monroe serenade is a blonde bombshell of an opening, brilliantly setting up an occasion for all the court to be in attendance.
Lear takes the opportunity of the festivities to announce his retirement as king and make a living will of inheritance endowment upon his three daughters. If not king from birth then certainly born to rule, used to flattery and obedience, Lear sets up a faux contest between his offspring – 'which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
It's a party trick of public pomposity that backfires spectacularly when his youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play the game. Her abrogation to filial adoration does the octogenarian's head in, and he disinherits her on the spot – “I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood.” It is a stupendous opening with towering performances and wonderful imagery.
It's a brilliant introduction to Robyn Nevin's Fool, Geoffrey Rush's Lear, Jacek Koman's Kent, and the sisters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia played by Helen Buday, Helen Thomson and Eryn Jean Norvill. This blistering scene of disunity and dysfunctionality ends with a stage strewn with the detritus of celebration, tinsel streamers, adroitly illustrating that all that glisters is not gold. From here the production peaks and troughs on its unwieldy crawl toward the end, never quite attaining the zenith of its opening.
Rush presents a fine madness, losing his mind, his bearings and his pants, and Nevin plays a nifty fool, a cocky bantam of a bloke, looking and sounding like a country race meet bookie. Not sure that the boom tish that accompanies the Fool cracking wise really works. The storm scene is all wind machine and sprinkler system, sound and fury, drowning not only the actors but their dialogue the dialogue. The actors are miked and yet still much of the dialogue is lost. Instinctively, the performer starts to shout above the tempest and the technology cannot compensate. The debris of the deluge does give Poor Tom lots of liquid to aquaplane through!
Mark Leonard Winter as Edgar is superb, starry eyed astrology strapped youth arse kicked into reality via his duplicitous brother, Edmund, forced to assylum and masquerade as the stark naked mad Poor Tom.
Helen Buday is bloody marvellous as Goneril, the glamorous Goneril, game player, game changer, with the strength to poison her prattling sister, inhabiting a steely imperiousness. Ah yes, she is her father’s daughter.
Eugene Gilfedder playing assorted knights, attendants and messengers exudes a notable presence, clear in diction, precise in action.
It appears that there is directorial choice to have Albany, the weak, widowed, childless and rather pitiful husband of Goneril, and Cornwall, the rather pitiless sadist spouse of Regan, as bland as possible. Not much fire in the fiery duke, and not much pluck in Albany, prissy in polo neck pullover, the eternal equivocator. No wonder Goneril makes him cuckold.
A stunning design by Robert Cousins that morphs from black box to bright white augmented by Nick Schlieper's luminous lighting enhances the journey of the play into its apocalyptic end.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Neil Armfield
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 24 November 2015 – 9 January 2016
Tickets: from $90
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | sydneytheatre.com.au