The Shadow King (Malthouse Theatre)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre
September 9 – 13
“The Shadow King” retells Shakespeare’s weighty “King Lear” tale, where the protagonist is an indigenous Australian whose kingdom is the outback. And it is an authentic account, drawn on co-creator Tom E. Lewis’s observations of family arguments and jealousies over mining royalties in the outback Northern Territory town of Katherine, proving the continued relevance of the bard’s work.
Sick and tired of playing the whitefella’s game, the swaggersome Lear (Tom E. Lewis) who initially takes the stage promises to give his land to his daughters, if their pledges of love please him. Unwilling to appease him, the youngest, Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick) is exiled, leaving her sisters to deal with their father’s temper and increasing insanity. It’s bad business, sad business, as one would expect from an adaptation of one of the bleakest pieces of writing in existence. However, this is not the “King Lear” of the traditional stage. Co-creators Lewis and Michael Kantor have rewritten the script in a mixture of Indigenous languages and creoles, as well as interwoven songs from a live band (‘Lear’s mob’), to retain, yet also transform the Shakespearean text.
The design is rustic and earthy in its red dirt and rusted staging, making use of compelling lighting and a dynamic soundscape to shadow and echo the space and transport the audience to the remote indigenous communities of its setting. The set is impressive, yet functional. A mining truck dominates the stage, serving as canvas for film projections of the different scenes, however, the production doesn’t rely on technology.
Lewis, (known for his titular portrayal in “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith”) gives a piercing performance as stubborn Lear, every inch a king but now a shadow of himself lost to madness. Charismatic but fearsome, he captures the duality of Lear’s fierce authority and carefree charm. However, the stand-out performance comes from Kamahi Djordon King, whose jester portrayal is thoroughly engaging in its humour.
“The Shadow King” is an exceptional piece of theatre. It is good not because it is indigenous; it is good and it is indigenous. Malthouse Theatre’s production more than does justice to the darkness of the King Lear tragedy, retaining its tormented violence and themes of greed, corruption, deceit and death. It is a challenging and haunting piece of theatre that will linger with you; the performances by the cast and designers will make you appreciate professional theatre at its best.