Shakespeare hope anew

Bard Wars (Brisbane Arts Theatre)                                                            

Brisbane Arts Theatre

May 4 – 27

A young farm boy named Luke (Aodham Thomas) is torn from his forsaken desert homeland to fight the dark forces of the evil Empire. Trained in ancient magicks by a mysterious hermit and travelling with a scoundrel pirate, his barbarian companion and two bickering slaves, the hero must brave the unknown, rescue a princess and take revenge on the Emperor’s right hand: the black knight who killed his father. Sound familiar… maybe not… for this is not the seminal space-opera movie you might expect, but rather its rather-hilarious Shakespeareanised retelling, “Bard Wars Hope Renew’d”.

Side-of-stage instrumentalists Bernard Compose and Ian Ahles set the scene for the medieval-themed Renaissance language about to be used in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s tell the futuristic story. John Grey’s simple set design sees the space split into black and white, in reminder of the simplicity of its classic good versus evil theme. Indeed, there are many obvious references to the work’s ever-so-familiar 1977 source material, only all with a Bard-themed twist. Princess Leia’s memorable “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re My Only Hope!” repeated message is, instead, for example, shared via a scroll and light sabers transformed into swords.

Shakespeare sensibilities feature throughout with nods to all of the playwright’s big tragedies (#ifyouknowyouknow) a ‘Hey Nonny Nonny’ ditty reference and ruthless antagonist Tarkin’s (a delightfully animated Callum Skoien) ruff. There is humour in the detail in many of the show’s props with the best to come after interval with very clever recreation of the iconic trash compactor scene that sees our ragtag group of freedom fighter heros temporarily stranded while trying to flee to safety from ruler of the tyrannical Galactic Empire Darth Vader’s (Dominic Tennison) Death Star space station. And an on-stage fan is used to both add drama to Luke’s early misery and later allows for Han Sol (Ben Postle) and Princess Leia (Natasha McDonald) to prim and preen to the extreme in anticipation of seeing each other.

This is a very funny play, fast-paced as characters sometimes die only to have their actors re-enliven to switch to another role and pantomime like in its appeal. Not only is there a ‘use the force’ united audience urge to Luke and collected cheering at evil’s demise, but even a “they’re behind you” cry out at one stage, such is audience’s embrace of the sense of fun at the core of the show’s creative premise. Kate Clark and Nick Scotney’s inventive costuming sees Eleni Koutsoukis’ Artoo realised through metal hat and silver shoes alongside Threepio’s (Megan Brown) golden shades, as well as a particularly impressive sand folk aesthetic. And lovely lighting (design by Tim Gawne) accompanies Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (John Grey) soliloquy about the loss of the beautiful terrestrial planet of Alderaan.

Medieval flute and lute have maybe never sounded so menacing as when they take us into the story with the instantly recognisable orchestral opening theme. And while they also provide an appropriately jaunty Cantina Band song, fabulous as it is, the music is sometimes too loud in competition with character speech. Similarly, some moments of dialogue delivered from the rear of the stage are lost when action occurs ahead of them.

Thomas makes for a strong Luke Skywalker, especially once he sets upon his Jedi quest, while Postle is appropriately cocksure as smarmy smuggler Captain Han Solo. The over-the-top affection-disguised-as-banter between him and McDonald as Leia brings much humour in Act Two. It is director (along with Tallulah M.E. Grey) John Grey, however, who anchors things as Old Obi-Wan and then a crudely dead Obi-Wan as pseudo narrator and reassurer to Luke that “the force will be with thee”. Solo’s Wookie Chewbacca may be without words, but Tamzen Hunter gives him a presence with only a growl. And Koutsoukis is always energetic as a similarly word-mute Artoo, using bells, whistles, a kazoo and alike in Lassie-like attempts to gain others’ attention.

Clearly, the tongue-in-cheek show does not take itself too seriously, yet it still respects its source material in is parody, through recreation of, for example, the stylised stance imagery of its iconic film poster. John Grey’s script is a crafted one, full of irony. It keeps the story moving quickly and its audience engaged throughout; even those who have perhaps previously found Shakespearean language to be a barrier to understanding, will find hope anew in its galaxy theatre not so far away

Relived Like

As You Like It (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

April 15 – May 13

William Shakespeare’s light-hearted comedy “As You Like It” is one of the playwright’s most regarded pastoral plays. Before we get to the simple forest life of Queensland Theatre’s lively production, however, we are first opened to its treacherous duchy court, for all the world is, of course, a stage.

The story is of Rosalind (Emma Wright), the only daughter of a banished senator, who is similarly sent into the forest by a Duchess (Helen Cassidy) because of her friendship with the Duchess’s daughter Celia (Courtney Cavallaro). Rosalind does this disguised as a boy, fleeing court to the forest home of other exiled fugitives, including the chivalrous Orlando (Andrew Hearle), to eventually find a way to bring all the plot’s love stories to realisation by the play’s end.

Adapting a Shakespearean play that has been performed so many times to still bring something new and interesting is no easy task and acclaimed Shakespearean director Damien Ryan’s attention to detail ensures that this “As You Like It” is one of engaging rural revelry in its focus of the romance between Orlando and Rosalind and their obstacle-ridden road to happiness. Motifs of other comedies abound as the story twists and turns its way through complications of love, lust and mistaken identity through masquerade. Indeed, Ryan finds the text’s accessibility through its comedy, embracing the farce and using pop culture nods sparingly and thus to good effect.

Although fast paced in its story, it’s a long show in its realisation, with a three hour running time befitting its enormity in terms of plot and characters. It’s a complicated and thus challenging text to follow in its need for doubling and tripling of roles, and while there is a knowing lean into this in the final joyful celebration of its four marriages, the change of actors across roles is initially confusing in some scenes.  

This, along with the density of such a lengthy, makes the work of all performers especially strong. Wright’s Rosalind represents a refined balance between humour and heart that immediately warms her character to the audience, and her natural chemistry with Hearle’s Orlando enhances our investment in her story as she transforms from girlish nativity to a womanly strength that allows her to transform the lives of others, as well as herself. The banter between Roslind and her best friend, cousin Celia is another highlight, in its tenderness as much as its back and forth tease. After literally throwing herself into her initial portrayal of the prudent sidekick of sorts, Cavallaro easily embodies the strong-willed and easily-offended shepherdess Phebe, feistily rejecting young shepherd Silvus (Davis Dingle), even though he is passionately in love with her.

It is appropriate that for a play that arguably challenges patriarchal values by disrupting the stereotypical differences between masculine and feminine, that casting is gender blind. Cassidy’s Duchess (rather than the usual Duke Frederick), has a regal assuredness to her demeanour, in stark contrast to her later doubling as dull-witted goat-girl Audrey who falls in love with cynical court jester Touchstone. Even with Audrey’s more ocker vocal sounds, Shakespeare’s words are always crisp in her mouth, which helps the audience in attempt to follow along with events. Similarly, this production’s female fool, still holds the audience in her comic hands. As the clever and witty Touchstone, Hannah Raven takes us back to the bawdy groundling interactions of The Globe days with an engaging performance of never-waning energy and perfect comic timing.

The standout moments, however, come from Andrew Buchanan as the melancholic, contemplative Jacques, an exiled former nobleman now living in the forest. His delivery of the play’s iconic ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue respectfully guides us through the seven stage of man both physically and verbally so that it resonates despite the tyranny of time from when it was first penned. It is a magical moment of captivated audience absorption that results in an opening night outburst of some applause as he entertains his camp mates with explanation of his philosophy on the proverbial threescore years and ten of an average human life.

Some spectacular moments also come courtesy of the show’s many creatives. Emma White’s set and costume design capture the contrasts of the court and forest settings in emphasis also of the story’s conflicts between culture and nature, and duty and love, with the sharp carnival stripe attire of the Duchess and her court jester being transitioned to the country attire of foresters. David Murray’s lighting design, meanwhile, warms us to the trials and tribulations of exiled life in the sparser experience of the desert Forest of Arden.

Music plays an integral role in this “As You Like It”, which adds an extra, though interwoven, layer to the production. Original music, composed by Music Director Alec Steedman and performed on stage by the cast and musicians, adds a medieval texture and captures the spirit of the comedy in folly-filled numbers such as that which stirs us into interval. While harmonised ensemble numbers such as this work well, however, at times it is difficult to hear individual singers over the music’s sounds.

There is also a compelling visual aesthetic, especially as the painted tapestry scrim screen backdrop to the Royal Court scenes is dropped to dramatically reveal the spectacular staging of the forest, complete with curved gradient drop from backdrop to stage proper. This allows for some memorable imagery, such as Colin Smith’s perch upon a rock from which to establish the pastoral mode of the play as opposed to the painted pomp of the court, as Duke Senior, the kind and fair-minded rightful ruler of the dukedom.

The play operates on many levels, not just literally, but also figuratively, which is reflected in the detailed staging touches of Orlando’s poetic words of praise for Rosalind, which are hung from the trees of the forest where Rosalind and Celia find them. This not only fulfils narrative purposes, but allows for emphasis on the elaborate use of language through allusion and wordplay that help its storytelling resonate across time and space.

Queensland Theatre’s “As You Like It’ embraces the spirit of Shakespeare’s play and is, therefore, particularly appropriately timed to have its opening week coincide with World Shakespeare Day. While its journey might be a lengthy one in which some of the narrative’s intricacies remain obscure, its take is as fresh as ever in its exploration of liberty and love of the pastoral type. The result is a boisterously funny spectacle of all that Shakespeare can be once access in to his work is fostered.

Photos – c/o Brett Boardman

Macbeth doth come

Macbeth (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Fringe Brisbane Hub

November 11 – 27

“Blood will have blood,” a haunted Macbeth proclaims in Act III of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, knowing that he will have to suffer for his actions. Blood not only represents guilt for Macbeth and his Lady, but is a constant presence as one of the play’s primary motifs. While there is no visual bloodshed in Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s darkest tragedies, there is no doubting the disturbance of its storyline or resonance of its themes around loyalty, fate and other such weighty subjects. The production is still full of the violence that is such a big part of “Macbeth” and Shakespeare in general; even just allusion to the repercussions of regicide, the murders of men, women and children, suicide and wartime battle serves as a reminder that its every violent act leads inevitably to the next.  And the company’s focus, instead, on the linguistic richness of the text, only adds to the intrigue and tension of the storytelling.

There may be no blood, or air-drawn dagger of the mind, but there is the ghost of Macbeth’s brave and noble best friend to plague the Thane’s guilt-ridden thoughts, and also the otherly witches to remind audiences of the darkness of the supernatural tones so integral to its Jacobean context. From their first appearance in the savage play’s opening scene where they grow out of a storm in plan to meet the triumphant warrior Macbeth after battle, the weird sisters (Crystal Arons, Leah Mustard and Ellen Hardisty, who projects a particular eeriness in her chanting tones) beguile us they speak and move in complement, soon telling in the song-like rhythm of rhyming couplets, of their hail of Macbeth (QSE’s Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini) as predicted Thane of Glamis, Cawdor and Scottish King hereafter.

The magic, murder and mayhem continues from this mysterious scene and despite some sudden lighting cues, shadows are used well to emphasise, as much as establish, mood, such as in Lady Macbeth’s (Rebecca Murphy) Act One soliloquies, when, in response to hearing in letter of Macbeth’s promotion to the Thaneship of Cawdor and detail of his meeting with the witches, she resolves to convince her husband to do whatever is required to realise his vaulting ambition and seize the crown from the visiting respected King Duncan (a fittingly authoritarian Mikala Crawley).

Attention to detail is evident throughout the production. Costumes are textured with feathers, leather and layering, and are themed in colour and patterned accents… Duncan and his eldest son Malcolm (Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn) in gold and the Macbeths in maroon until the gold garments are also usurped. And just as Macbeth is referred to only as tyrant after the climatic banquet scene (interestingly appearing immediately after interval), we no longer spot him in regal robes from this point.

Care is also taken to ensure that characterisastion does not compromise the high thematic stakes. The Macbeths that Pensalfini and Murphy enliven are multifaceted, showing shades of being both a power-hungry warrior and Machiavellian murderess and also grief-stricken parents with a painful void to fill. And the phases of their respective character journeys are clearly defined. Pensalfini uses the non-verbals of widened eyes of disbelief as he methodically considers the supernatural soliciting of the initial prophecies of the instruments of darkness, contemplating the appeal of the prospect of power, rather than its promise. It is a wonderful initial insight into Macbeth’s inner thoughts that is emphasised by his then commanding stage presence in the character’s ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ contemplation of what he should do and then frenzied rather than considered response to the sudden appearance of a spectral dagger as potential marshal towards murder. And his delivery of Macbeth’s poignant final soliloquy’s reflection of life’s lack of meaning is a heartfelt and thus moving contemplation.

Pensalfini and Murphy both clearly have a natural grasp of Shakespearean language, delivering their dialogue as if it was modern English, complete with meaningful emphasis and emotional undertones. This works well, especially against the relatively stark staging of the Fringe Brisbane Hub’s intimate pop-up space, to bring audience members into the action. Murphy’s Lady Macbeth is also finessed by the contrast of her character arc. She begins by giving us a formidable character that serves as reminder of how without his fierce female characters, Shakespeare is nothing. Her ruthless, in-control provocation to have Macbeth commit treason, is beautifully contrasted with her later appearances when increasingly consumed by madness.

Angus Thorbuns is powerful in his performance as Macbeth’s foil, the passionately-patriotic Thane of Fife, Macduff and although Macduff’s cousin Ross is a minor character in the play, Rebekah Schmidt brings a gravitas to his messenger role. Joanne Booth does double duty (and deaths) as Lady Macduff and Banquo. As the loyal and protective Lady, furious at her husband for fleeing the country for England to urge rightful-heir Malcolm to retake the Scottish throne by force, she contributes to the particularly strong scene of her character’s only appearance. The brutal scene is often cut in modern performance, however, is important for its illustration of the depths of Macbeth’s butcherous depravity, and its inclusion not only achieves this, but serves as a testament to the ensemble skills.

Director Angela Witcher gives audiences a relatively straightforward production of “Macbeth”; Shakespeare’s language is delivered with clarity, which aids understanding, while the plotting is also clear. This is, surprisingly, the first time that a staged production of “Macbeth” doth come to Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble and the company’s presentation of the dark psychological thriller not only reminds audiences as to the robustness of its story, but does so in a way that makes it accessible even to those without detailed familiarity with the original text.

Although “Macbeth” is already a tight play by Shakespeare standards, plot edges have been trimmed with the elimination of, for example, younger son of King Duncan, Donalbain. Drama and action are not, however, compromised, as is evidently clear in its final impressive physical battle, vigorous sword-fight and all. And the humour of Tenielle Plunkett’s comic-relief porter scene has a modern touch that is appreciated by the responsive opening night audience, which serves as a good reminder of how this classic of the canon of English literature still holds so much for so many interpretations.

Photos c/o – Benjamin Prindable Photography

When woe wins

Shakespeare Pick and (re)Mix (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Elements Collective

October 14 – 21

Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet walk into a bar… but only grouping gets to stay. Last week the great Dane’s play-within-a-play persuasion saw Fringe Brisbane audiences experiencing the hijinks of a bite-sized “Hamlet”, however, in the second outing of Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Shakespeare Pick and (re)Mix”, it is the Bard’s best (and well known) story of woe that is to be the 30 minutes or so traffic of the stage.

A half-hour tragedy obviously requires a lot of cuts, which occur mostly in exposition. In Rob Pensalfini’s adaption of “Romeo and Juliet”, there is still a Queen Mab mention and a more straight-talking balcony scene thanks to Leah Fitzgerald Quinn’s forthright representation of the only daughter of the never seen Lord Capulet. The play’s iconic lines are also all still there, with a deliberate play up of their bawdiness in any other part belonging to a man et al mentions. While she does double duty as the Prince of Cats Tybalt, Rebecca Murphy is brilliant as Juliet’s maternal servant nurse, obviously fond of talking at length and lewd in her references to love. And Rebekah Schmidt gives us an especially spirited ‘can I get an Amen’ Friar Lawrence, in addition to taking on role as the quick-witted Mercutio.

“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,” Juliet implores in impatient wait for night to fall so that she can celebrate her wedding night with Romeo (Dudley Powell). The almost aside quote is particularly apt for inclusion in this drastically cut-down version of the classic of the English cannon, as it captures the approach fostered by Rebecca Murphy’s detailed direction. Things are sometimes quite frenzied as players swap in and out of roles, which even sees Fitzgerald Quinn’s switching from Juliet to then become Romeo’s manservant Balthazar to tell him of Juliet’s supposed death and offer to sell him some poison so that he can join Juliet in death in the Capulets’ burial vault. And the energy then crescendos theatre sports style as encores see the ensemble t giving us the story in three and then one minute tellings, to end in a hilarious triumph.

At show’s start, the audience is divided down the middle and allocated in allegiance to either Capulet or Montague, to cheer jeer and alike in response to on stage interactions between the two feuding Verona families. The result is lots of fun with literal “he’s behind you” and “look over there” type pantomime moments, as Elizabethan audience engagement would likely have been at the time of the play’s first presentation at The Globe … not to mention the cross dressing of Powell as Lady Capulet, costume malfunctions and all. Audience involvement is also easily integrated through volunteer participation in the story’s iconic masquerade ball dance, with musical accompaniment from Liliana Macarone and Angus Thorburn.  

All elements combine to make this “Romeo and Juliet” a very accessible bite-sized way into Shakespeare’s work. It’s all lots of fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It does, however, leave you wanting to see how the other options would have been handled and hope that though the QSE’s 2022 Fringe Brisbane run is over, we will hopefully see the show back again sometime in the future. In meantime, there always the Ensemble’s production on the Scottish play coming next month.

Moor makeover

Othello (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 10 – October 1

“Othello” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays given its question of beliefs around race and gender as part of its poignant commentary on the universality of the human condition. But with its challenges comes great potential, and it is a potential well and truly realised in Queensland Theatre’s outstanding production of the classic as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. The company’s first production of the tragedy (which premiered in Cairns in 2021 after the COVID- cancellation of its intended 2020 Brisbane season) is an electric adaption that approaches the Shakespearean story from a uniquely-Queensland perspective, as Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject some Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture in a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry together of the two great storytelling traditions of Shakespeare and Wagadagam.

The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of the Senator Brabantio (in this case a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder) and how his mind is poisoned to the green-eye monster of jealousy over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza), suggested by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this “Othello” is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands in tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men (including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela) volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II.

The assured storytelling that ensures from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audience members, with Klarwein’s detailed direction positioning the audience to be immediately engaged in its narrative. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is an ultimately brutal story including blatant racism and scenes of domestic violence, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling, particularly in its early scenes as actor gestures and reactions not only bring Shakespeare’s words to life, but enrich them with emphasis of intended and incidental meanings. Iago’s use of mocking language when meeting his wife and Desdemona’s confidant Emelia (Sarah Ogden), not only tells us much their relationship from a gender politics perspective, but gives the audience some easy humour to which it can respond.

While some of the play’s beautiful, eloquent language is given over to levity, such as Othello’s declaration that he will not be destroyed by jealousy “for she had eyes and chose me”, there are still a number of lovely moments in this retelling, thanks to the play’s creatives. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence and Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create some stunning imagery, such as when the sheer white curtains of the initially humble staging are moved aside to reveal a pool of water that becomes an integral part of scenes such as Othello’s physical response to Iago’s vivid descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual infidelity. Ben Hughes’ lighting design, meanwhile, notably darkens things into the petty villain Iago’s soliloquy revelation of motiveless malignancy, drawing the audience into the character’s outline of his intention to be evened with the allegedly lusty Othello, ‘wife for wife’.  

Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot of the play. He not only regales in conveyance of the villain’s duplicitous nature, but he illustrates the intriguing character’s essential chameleon-ness as he adapts his manner and style of speaking to suit the differing circumstances of audience and purpose, using language to both manipulate others and disguise his true intentions while planting the seeds that grow into Othello’s paranoia. Whether bitterly brooding the emotionally-charged idea that Othello hath leaped into his seat bed and seduced Emilia abroad, alleging loyalty to Othello in assurance of his honesty and reluctance to implicate Desdemona and Cassio, or feigning friendship in counsel to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated after dismissal for fighting when drunk on duty, he is marvellous in show of Iago’s multi-faceted manipulations.

Bani, meanwhile, appropriately conveys Othello’s central humanity, which is essential to the play. The titular tragic hero is a meaty physical and emotional role and he fills it with both initial, purposeful authority and the passion of love’s hyperbolic extremes. He easily takes us on journey from powerful and respected Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion through the torment of ‘knowing’ (rather than not) of Desdemona’s disloyalty to dignified but vulnerable comprehension of what he has done. His ‘put out the light’ soliloquy rationalisation of trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity is delivered to an absolutely silent, captivated audience and his final plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ is a commanding elevation of one of the play’s most poignant moments.

Buchanan and Bani are as supported by a strong cast of players. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Not only is she passionate in the character’s love for Othello, which assures but also unnerves her husband in water of the seeds of his suspicion, but she strikes the delicate balance required to make the character dutiful, but also of some strength. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. Together, the duo credibly portrays a genuine friendship with their conversation in Desdemona’s preparation for bed highlighting their shared qualities more than their differences. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour, especially in drunken assurance that he can stand and speak well enough.

Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make experience of this “Othello” seem like less that its 2 hours 40-minute running time (including interval). Its weave together of Kala Lagaw Ya (one of the language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions as each language is used to distinct effect, for example when flirty exchanges occur between Cassio and Bianca (Tia-Shonte Southwood) to both add some tonal levity and setup the scenario of Desdemona’s symbolic love token appearing in Cassio’s hands as the ocular proof evidence (in this case a gift from elders to Othello’s mother) of her supposed betrayal.

While its still-startling conclusion has been changed slightly, this “Othello” shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love are still relevant today. And the reactions of those audience members new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Monster reimagining


Christ Church Milton

May 18 – June 5

From the moment of entry into the heritage-listed Christ Church in Milton, it is obvious that there is a lot going on in the LearLand of The Curator’s latest offering. “KING LEAR MOSTER SHOW!” is a riotous exploration of dynastic struggles in a post democratic world and Beth Scott’s set design features are almost overwhelming in creation of the aesthetic of the epic 21st century fable. While an inventive iron milk crate and pool noodle fashioned throne sits back of stage, a silver mosaic collage of found objects features as an up-close-and personal dystopian signal to the tone of this far-from-classic tale of Shakespeare’s mad monarch. With ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, we begin with a gasp from the titular king’s loyal and honest advocate, an effervescent Felinini-esque fool (Eleonora Ginardi) who asks about life before speaking in one of the play’s many tongues.  

One of Shakespeare’s more frequently performed tragedies, “King Lear”tells the story of the old and tired King Lear and his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. When Cordelia, his youngest and favourite daughter is unable to shower him with false affections like her scheming elder sisters, in a fit of rage he banishes her, breaking her heart in the process. What follows is Lear’s dramatic fall from grace – and into madness, alongside the plotting of the bastard Edmund and the honest and gullible legitimate child Edgar of Gloucester. Transformed into “KING LEAR MONSTER SHOW!”, it is a complex, intellectual experience – a behemoth of a morality tale of the heart, that despite its politics, is, as its core, a family saga. Accordingly, the production is all about character. And the characters are distinct from the beginning, thanks to Director and Costume Designer Michael Beh’s rich tapestry of costumes. It is all colour and moment as characters, stomp, prance or mope about in sequined splendour of leather, lace, velvet, feathers and found sparkles. The bold but detailed aesthetic is a characteristic of The Curator’s works, carefully carried through the lighting (Lighting Designer David Willis) in, for example, the signature green hues that hover over appearance of Lear’s villainous eldest daughter Goneril (Amanda McErlean), costuming and even the giant portrait paintings (from artist and designer Ronnie Walkefield) that adorn the walls around us.

Things continue through the extremes of emotion towards a scream into the ominously tense soundscape of interval, before Act Two returns to focus more on the grandstanding self-proclaimed villain-by-necessity Edmund (Willem Whitfield). It also provides platform for the production’s most impressive performances. Warwick Comber makes for a formidable figure as the leather-clad Lear, unable to to give or receive real love and affection and blind to his pettiness and the consequences of playing one’s family members off against one another. The ageing British monarch is one of the canonically great roles and Comber embraces it with gusto as he belches and bellows about in early scenes. As powerful as his vocal presence may be, however, his most commanding moments are in quieter times of more restraint, such as his early Act Two self-pitying reaction against the elements of the symbolic storm in reveal of his inner turmoil and mounting madness. As Lear’s loyal cousin Gloucester, Royal Duchess of the Blood, Julia Johnson is glorious in her interact with both son and bastard son, but especially when blinded. And Cameron Hurry is intoxicating, especially as sweary mad party animal Poor Tom, giving his all as he throws himself about the stage.  

As part of its transformation of the powerful tragedy, the play leans into the Bard’s bawdy innuendo. There are a number of highly sexualised moments, especially from whimsical bastard Edmund. Whitfield is very much a glam rock star as he Machiavellians about in enjoyment of his wonderful vengeful wickedness, kissing boys and girls alike. While the core of Shakespeare’s narrative remains relatively intact, the play builds upon this with commentary and extension of its character’s voices using western, European languages (Italian, French, German, Spanish) and excerpts of poetry from Dante, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats and Eliot. It is a lot and while this adds a layer of interest, and the projections of the translations are helpful, this overload sometimes detracts from overall cohesion in what is a long play of 2 hours and 20 minutes (including interval).

“If you see with innocent eyes, everything is divine,” distinctive Italian film director and screenwriter Frederico Fellini stated. It’s an oft-repeated quote in “KING LEAR MONSTER SHOW!” and an appropriate final comment from the wildly reimagined Fool, a reminder perhaps that, as audiences are reminded by a pre-show projection, ‘There is no future. There is no past’. There is, however, passion, and this is one of the things that resonates most from this work, which is visually dynamic and highly imaginative, even in how its tragic body count mounts. With such an avant-garde approach, however, it is perhaps best seen by those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s source material, in order to fully appreciate not only its creativity, but its resonance across time and cultures.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla Photography