Melbourne Festival: The Shadow King

We’re here to tell you one of your Dreamtime stories and make it one of ours. 

Kamahi Djordon King’s Fool had me from those words.  The Shadow King is the King Lear story re-told as an Australian Indigenous story.

The Shadow King. Photo by Jeff Busby
The Shadow King. Photo by Jeff Busby

Even if you haven’t read it or seen a production, it’s a story that existed before Shakespeare’s version and it’s hard not to know about the King who divides his land based on his daughters professed love for him.

This version is co-created by Tom E Lewis (who also plays Lear and is best known from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) and Michael Kantor. With live music, five spoken languages and an understanding of the story that’s so much deeper than the text, this is the first Lear that made me care and wish for a happier ending.

Maybe because its a Lear that’s all about telling “our” story, rather than one that focuses on the actor playing Lear and the sacrosanct language.

With a floor of red earth – which cries to be walked on in bare feet – a rusty moving stage, and projections of outback houses (complete with dogs and kids) and the land that surrounds them, it’s a world that’s instantly recognisable to Australians, even if we’ve never been beyond our cities and beaches.

There are tweaks to the known story, but it’s still about a greedy powerful man who divides and gives away his land, with its mineral riches, only to realise that it was never his. This Lear also does what the Bard wasn’t terrific at: recognising the power and position of women in society. Here Gloucester is a mother (Frances Djulibing) and her a dilly bag is as significant as Lear’s crown.

Performances were nervous on opening night, but it took nothing away from the heart of The Shadow King. And with many cities and festivals to tour to, it’s going to develop into something unforgettable.

In his welcome us to country, Uncle Jack Charles said that this is theatre that should be seen all over the world. I can’t agree more. After all it’s a story that continues to be told all over the world in countless languages and forms; so, maybe our Dreamtimes aren’t as different as we think they are.

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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