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The Shadow King, Barbican: ‘Thoughtful, deft’

The Shadow King, Barbican: ‘Thoughtful, deft’

The Shadow King, Barbican: ‘Thoughtful, deft’
June 28
11:45 2016


Tom E. Lewis in ‘The Shadow King’. Photo: Jeff Busby

Melbourne-based Malthouse Theatre’s 90-minute version of King Lear is one of the best free adaptations of a play I have ever seen. Thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive and deft at every step, it shifts the angle of the play a few degrees to a perspective of its own but without traducing any element of the original. It is linguistically agile, including a number of verbatim lines from Shakespeare but largely paraphrasing it in a blend of English and the local Kriol (or creole) of the Northern Australian Aborigines among whom this version is set.

Lear is the head of an Aboriginal family clan, once again dividing his “kingdom” between his three daughters. Gloucester becomes mother rather than father to her two sons, and all other characters are excised apart from the Fool, who continues to speak truth to Lear but also becomes our own storyteller and guide through the conceptual world of this people. The driving idea here is one common to many indigenous peoples of the world: that we are not the owners of the land, rather it is of us. This is what Lear has lost touch with, which causes first his folly then his madness, and it makes radiant sense as an interpretation of the play.

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The idea of re-telling Lear in this way is that of director Michael Kantor and lead actor Tom E. Lewis, who first found international fame playing the lead role in the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. His Lear is a force of nature: by turns assured, defiant and as tempestuous as the storm through which he wanders. Kamahi Djordon King as the Fool is at once audience-friendly and a touch shamanic; it helps that the evening is shot through with music, with a four-piece band accompanying both traditional chants and rockier numbers (although one of the guitarists really needs to have his wah-wah pedal confiscated).

Events are caught between traditional ideas and the modern world, just like the action taking place on a stage with red sand underfoot and a gigantic stylised road train as a backdrop. Even half a world away it is a creation of both beauty and profundity.

To July 2, barbican.org.uk

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