Taking an Australian Gothic slant on the play (think Hanging Rock), director Jacqueline Kerr has supplanted the tragic characters from the Middle Ages into Colonial Australia complete with its sparse landscape, dangerous weather and spooky sounding wildlife. On entering the performance space we were thrilled with Heartbeast’s usual display of excellent stage design; a long cat-walk stage with a dip in the middle and lone leafless tree at the end made great use of the atmosphere of the old church hall (a relic itself with high vaulted ceilings and plenty of colonial ghosts).
Our misguided Lear (John Evans) makes a big show of dividing his land-wealth among his three daughters based solely on their ability to shower him with inflated flattery. Eldest daughters Regan (Anna Loren) and Goneril (Helen Ekundayo) rise to the occasion disguising their contempt for the old fool with compliments that appeal to his sensitive ego. Youngest child, Cordelia (Jane Schon) is conflicted by her inability to find words great enough to describe her love and as such is spitefully cast aside by the dejected Lear. The house of Gloucester (Brent Schon) meanwhile is simultaneously thrown into turmoil when illegitimate son Edmund (Matt Gaffney) conspires to see the demise of his half-brother and heir Edgar (David Paterson) through a devious plan to implicate his brother in a plotted patricide. These two sad patriarchs find themselves evicted and wandering the harsh outback, lost and abused as their fate becomes somewhat grim.
Loren and Ekundayo as the elder sisters greatly impress with both their performances and their handling of Shakespeare’s notorious language; their pronunciation easy to understand and well received without sounding contrived and their power-crazed characters were delightful. Brett Schon also proved strong and natural in the role of Gloucester and Matt Gaffney was beautifully evil as scheming bastard Edmund. Lear and his Fool proved slightly disappointing; Adrienne Costello who is always a standout joy in Heartbeast productions seemed flat and diluted perhaps in an attempt to comply with the gothic twist, the wit of the Fool was lacking. Evans’ Lear seemed stuck on a steady plain of anguished blubbering that felt unfocused and unending. David Paterson on the other hand played a nicely witless Edgar however a questionable decision to have Poor Tom, rather than dress in beggars rags, smear his body with clay to the sound of a didgeridoo feels risky. Perhaps there was a clever comment here on appropriation but it wasn’t very clear and Paterson himself seemed uncertain and awkward with the action.
Lear in the guise of Australian Gothic is an intriguing idea and makes for a great night of theatre. Another signature of the Heartbeast team are their lavish costumes (designed by Kerr) which set the tone for the evening and didn’t disappoint.
Adorned with the unmistakable stamp of Heartbeast Theatre, Shakespeare’s King Lear lives to die another day and has been treated with a unique reimaging. It is well deserving of a generous audience. Showing now until August 15 tickets are reasonable to $33 and can be purchased online via the Heartbeast website.