A Lear like no other

Queen Lear was always going to be a bitch to review.

Men and women are different beasts who adore and loathe each other because we see the world in slightly different ways. Shakespeare’s women aren’t as richly fascinating as his men, so the gender swap isn’t that unusual (Kate Mulvany’s recent Cassius comes to mind), but to do so successfully means that every relationship to Lear has to change in subtle ways that together change the story.

MTC Queen Lear. Photo by Jeff Busby
MTC Queen Lear. Photo by Jeff Busby

It’s here that Rachel McDonald, as dramaturg and director, is most successful. Too often the on-stage relationships in Shakespeare are ignored for the sake of original character, but McDonald’s Lear is led by the changing status and relationships that are often much clearer that her story.

The relationship between mother Lear (Robyn Nevin) and daughters Reagan (Belinda McClory) and Goneril (Genevieve Picot) starts with the bitter angry resentment that comes from not being loved enough by the person who’s meant to love you the most. It’s personal and touching and a father could not make Goneril cry in quite the same way. (I haven’t mentioned youngest daughter Cordelia because I have no idea what was going on with her and gave up trying to understand.) The most unexpectedly moving relationship is between Kent (Robert Menzies) and Lear as Kent tries to protect and respect his Queen, and Greg Stone brings a surprising depth to his wheelchair-bound Albany by focussing on how his relationship with his wife Goneril changes.

Niklas Pajanti’s lighting is exquisite in its creation of the void-like world and its momentary glimpses of characters as they came in and out of the dark. It made the stage look beautiful and intriguing and helps make sense of a design (Tracy Grant Lord) that baffles.

The stage has depth and levels that are beautiful to look at, but offer a confusing world. Maybe the hanging chains bound them to the gods; perhaps Edgar’s bike and naked shower were his last hints of freedom – but why was there a giant phallus that grew and shrank and ejaculated pretty fools in white nighties?

McDonald’s program notes say, “It is like a science-fiction world … simultaneously ancient, contemporary and retro.” This explains why the costumes were a bit Bride of Frankenstein meets Blake’s Seven and Mad Men, but by drawing on so many aesthetics, Lear’s world is merely a mish-mash of ideas that distract – often comically – from the telling of the story. It may be a stronger telling with just the costumes and the lighting.

But no matter what, it’s Lear we go to see.

Robyn Nevin was always going to be Lear like no other. And she is. The night opens magnificently with a woman with undisputed power. She loves being Queen and the accompanying parties and gorgeous frocks; she never considers that her power will change when she splits the property between the kids. As the two elder daughters learnt how to behave from their mum, everything is taken from mum and her anger mixes with dementia as she fights to maintain her mask and keep the hurting old lady hidden. Her fool is placed in her head and appears as versions of her daughters who help create her lucidity in the madness; if only they didn’t keep popping out of the giant penis.

For all the curious oddness of Queen Lear, when Queen Robyn is on stage, the rest makes more sense.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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