Shakespeare’s King Lear has been adapted countless times, with Lear’s greed for his daughter’s love, his increasing instability and the ripping apart of his family a story that resonates across time and cultures.
In this adaptation for the Malthouse Theatre, Lear is an indigenous Australian and his kingdom is the outback. In the context of Aboriginal history, including their relationship with the land and struggles to retain a sense of traditional culture in Western society, the messages inherent in Shakespeare’s original script align powerfully.
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Director Michael Kantor created The Shadow King in conjunction with indigenous actor Tom E. Lewis. They have drawn on Lewis’s experiences of life in the outback town of Katherine, where Lewis saw arguments over land rights and families torn apart by jealousy to do with mining royalties.
The script retains some key lines from Shakespeare, interspersed with text in indigenous languages including Katherine Kriol and Yumpla Tok from Torres Strait, as well as bursts of entertaining song.
A sparse set designed by Kantor, Paul Jackson, and Dan Miller is covered in red sand to symbolise earth. A band sits to the left, referred to as Lear’s “mob”, while in the centre a revolving “truck” serves as a canvas for film projections to create different scenes.
Lewis plays Lear, capturing both the flippancy of his ego and the gravity of his mental decline. We first meet him striding proudly outside his home, wearing a suave suit and gold crown. He sings and dances with a confident swagger. Lear is on a high, giving away land to his daughters while promising the world if they pledge that they love him enough.
In the well-told tale Goneril (Jada Alberts) and Regan (Natasha Wanganeen) ramp up the adoration he wants to hear. But the youngest daughter Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick) can’t force her case, much to Lear’s sudden rage.
As Cordelia faces exile, the other sisters embark on a battle of their own. How will they handle their increasingly senile father? Or fight each other for the love of renegade man-of-the town Edmund (Jimi Bani)? Edmund, in this version, is not only conspiring against his own brother, but plotting against the Lear sisters to take over their inherited land.
As Lear deteriorates, he roams the outback and finds comfort in the company of Edmund’s brother Edgar (Damion Hunter) who is running for his life in disguise as a poor, disheveled figure Tom. Meanwhile the characters around Lear descend into greater selfishness and greed. Their willingness to fight with family, kidnap, maim and kill in their quest for wealth takes hold.
“The Fool” (Kamahai Djordon King) guides the narrative, switching to player as he befriends Lear and brings moments of comic relief through songs and cheeky dances. Also central is Edgar and Edmund’s mother, (Frances Djulibing), who like Cordelia and Edgar, comes to suffer as their families rage.
Does it work? The tale translates powerfully and the performances were raw and real, with Lewis projecting the dilemmas and complexities of Lear superbly.
Some of the comedic moments and silly dances, as well as the more extreme characterisations — such as Edmund’s leaps from charm to madness — occasionally felt forced. A film montage of Lear being hunted down in the outback is shocking and memorable, but veers into horror movie territory.
Just as no one can truly triumph in King Lear, little justice seems to be done in The Shadow King adaptation, despite the script suggesting it has. Good people suffer at the hands of the greedy. The parting message — that we cannot truly “own” the land, the land rules us — is delivered loud and clear amid a field of bodies and blood.
The details: The Shadow King plays at The Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until October 27. Tickets on the company website.