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King Lear

Sydney Theatre Company and Colonial First State Global Asset Management present, KING LEAR, by William Shakespeare at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay, 28 November – 8 January, 2016.

KING LEAR. Not another HAMLET. KING LEAR. Yippee!

1603. The ancient Virgin Queen is dying and she has tactically avoided naming an heir. The English Government, and hence her people, fear civil war if she has not – a divided kingdom of clamouring claimants. She has lost so many teeth she is difficult to understand and, so, when she lost her speech altogether those that tended her asked her for a sign that if she intended that the King of Scotland, James VI, (a Protestant), the son of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic), was to succeed her. According to the legend we have handed down to us, she reached and touched her head – it was thought it meant she would be succeeded by one who already wore a crown. Just before three o’clock in the morning on the 24 March, 1603, Gloriana passed. At 10 am on March 24 the first proclamation of the new sovereign – which referred firmly ‘to the undoubted right’ of James to succeed – was read at Whitehall Gate, then by the High Cross in Cheapside an hour later, and finally at the Tower of London, by her chief minister Robert Cecil (the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who had died in 1598).

James the sixth king of Scotland is now by the death of our late Soveraigne, Queen of England of famous memoire, become also our Onely, Lawfull, Lineall and Rightful Liege Lord, James the first of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith.

Official word did not reach Scotland for five days but James, already, was aware, when it did arrive. Robert Carey, Elizabeth’s cousin, endeavouring to seek favour with the new regime, on confirmation of Elizabeth’s death, bluffing his way through the closed gates of London, and on a sequence of pre-planned horses, left London, between eight and nine on Thursday morning and arrived in Edinburgh on Saturday – despite an accident which bloodied his head, when he was thrown by one of his mounts. He had taken a ring belonging to Lady Scroope, supposedly thrown to him from a window at Richmond by her, a ring that James had once sent her and asked that it be returned to him only when Elizabeth was dead.

From Carey’s diary:

The king was newly gone to bed by the time I knocked at the gate. I knelt by him and saluted him with his title, “England, Scotland, France, and Ireland.’ He gave me his hand to kiss and bade me welcome. After he had long discoursed of the manner of the Queen’s sickness, and of her death, he asked, what letters I had from the Privy Council. I told him None and acquainted him how I narrowly escaped from them. And yet I brought him a blue ring from a Lady that I hoped would give him assurance of the truth I reported. He took it, and looked upon it and said, ‘It is enough. I know by this you are a true messenger.

On 15 March 1604, the new royal couple, James and his wife Anne, made procession through the streets of London, from the Tower to Westminster. He was crowned King. The Crown Imperial, that seven-pound marvel of gold, jewels, pearl, English antiquity, and glory, first cast by Henry VII and worn by all successive monarchs was on his head: James I. From MAJESTIE, by David Teems:

Losing little time, in a gesture that was advanced for its time, James called three conferences in 1604. One would end a twenty-year war with Spain (the Somerset House Conference). Another called for the union of Scotland and England. A third was on the matter of religion. His bid for the union didn’t take. It was an English parliament and even without the xenophobia, the resistance was too strong and too old. When they denied his request for union, James did what he did often. He ignored them. He then proclaimed himself ‘by kingly power and prerogative the name and style of King of Great Britain’. Like the legendary Arthur, he was determined to ’embrace under one name the whole circuit of the island.’ He had signets made with the rose and thistle intertwined, the rose of England and the thistle of Scotland. He combined the flags of Scotland and England, the St. Andrew with the St. George, to create what is often called the Union Jack (named for himself), the flag of Great Britain to this day. He had a twenty-shilling gold piece minted that was to be called the Unite. Its motto: Faciam eos in genome nam (I shall make them one nation). [1]

Trailing behind the royal family, in procession, on the day of the coronation, believe it or not, were William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Philips and other actors in their troupe. Going back, gently, in time: James arrived at his palace in Greenwich for the first time on 13 May 1603. Six days later, on 19 May, letters patent were issued making the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ the ‘King’s Men.’ Within a week of arriving in London in the heat of all his other obligations James the first of England made this patent allowing Shakespeare and his companions to perform as ‘well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our solace and pleasure when we shall think it good to see them … within their now usual house called The Globe, as well as all other towns and boroughs in the kingdom.’ Actors had enjoyed noble patronage before but never royal. Not until now. And not only that, but they were appointed Grooms of the Chamber, obligated to wear the royal livery – the red doublet, hose,and cloak.  Shakespeare was placed first in the list, by the Master of the Great Wardrobe, for receiving 4 1/2 yards of scarlet cloth for his uniform.  James may have been seeking solace from his ‘King’s Men’ but he was also looking for a vehicle of propaganda to his people and no one could do them Kings like Shakespeare. A new foundation was being laid over an old one.[1]

Jumping forward in time again, four days after his coronation, James addressed his first English parliament and in making his case for Union, drew upon the same stories that Shakespeare had been telling in his plays dealing with the divisive War of the Roses not resolved until Henry VII united the two Houses of Lancaster and York: ‘Do we not yet remember, that this kingdom was divided into seven little kingdoms, besides Wales? And is it not the stronger by its union? … God has made us all one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself by nature so indivisible…’. He climaxed his long speech recasting this political problem as a family one: “What God hath joined then, let no man separate. I am the husband, and all the whole isle is my lawful wife. I am the head, and it is my body. I am the shepherd, and it is my flock. I hope therefore no man will be so unreasonable to think that I that am a Christian king under the Gospel, should be a polygamist and husband to two wives.'[1]

James, the first, was serious and Shakespeare and his men had best start to get to work for him, and with the king comparing the challenge of political union to working out family problems it would not be much of a stretch for dramatists to give family crises a political edge. Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, beginning with the act of a father dividing a kingdom amongst his family, and then showing some of the heinous, possible consequences to the family royal and to the kingdom at large, itself, maybe some ‘fop’ to fulfilling his master’s intentions – creating the required propaganda. But, of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare did much more than that and created one of the grimmest of tragedies to reverberate in the universe of human consciousness, far beyond the venal (if not also visionary) needs of a mere king and his ambitions.

KING LEAR is hardly fare of good cheer for a Christmas or the start of a New Year night out, in Sydney (or anywhere else). It is, however, a great ‘thing’ for those of us ruminating on the behaviour of our species, the homo sapiens, at the beginning of a new century of our ‘recorded’ history, in anticipating the future of us all. Of, even, the planet earth, itself.

To talk of this production I need to say I was fortunate enough to be sitting in D row of the stalls at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. For, when I declared my excitement about what I was watching with friends in the interval and afterwards, it became clear that there was some enormous difficulty for audience in the latter half of the stalls and in the upstairs circle. For those sitting there, the production, the playing, was a bafflement and one of irritating effort – some perforce, just gave up and endured it all, grumpily. They could not hear to follow what was happening, and this is in despite that the company of actors were electronically assisted with personalised radio-mics. In my snobbery, I could insist to ask what preparation had they made to perceive the play – but then, should that be a necessity, rather isn’t it a personal penchant, a superfluity of effort to do such a thing? Some do say, have said. Just what is wrong with the Roslyn Packer auditorium? Is there anything wrong with it, besides all those stairs? Its acoustics? I am just asking for information. Anybody have friends (or self) having any difficulty in there?

KING LEAR is a massive phenomenon in of itself – it is a tremendously BIG play of ideas, human idiosyncrasies and human frailties, behaviours. It concerns two families. It deals with the relationships between father and daughters. Fathers and sons. Husbands and wives. States and states. And the personae that serve them and it. We know of all of them, those concerns are in our own lives, too. This play touches us all deeply and knowingly, and often with near unbearable insight.

As well, this production by Neil Armfield and his Designers: Set, Robert Cousins; Costumes, Alice Babidge; Lighting, Nick Schlepper; Music Composition, John Rogers (Simon Baker, Phillip Slater) – even to some Wagnerian Ring Cycle-like brass  – is, also, a massive concept in of itself. This play and this production is not for ‘groundlings’ just seeking entertainment. Much more, by both play and production, is being asked. I am not sufficient to talk of the strength and weaknesses of Shakespeare’s work – I remain in a kind of cowed awe, as per usual. Of Mr Armfield’s work, too, I am in awe, although on the opening night, when I saw it, it seemed to be not yet a whole. The actors seemed to be still finding the measure of the space and how to command it with Shakespeare’s language and physical biddings for the proficient telling of their part for the play’s best impact, within the huge concept, actuality, of the design. The first act a basic black walled box that flies in and out, with a jet engine fan of a storm with heavy rain effects, narrowing down to a ‘cave’ space, contrasted spectacularly in the second half with a James Turrell-like vacuum of white light hazed space – the interior of a crazed mind?! It seems to me that most productions of Lear lose their bearings in the storm scene – it was here, too, on this night, where the play kinda disappeared in clarities, for a long while – so much going on with Shakespeare’s language wafting and warping in the noises of the ‘storm’ and body-surfing of the mad Tom, in the puddling stage – mad indeed. Some might say, maddening.

Certainly, otherwise, I was fairly pleased that every actor, from the leading figures to the supporting players knew what they meant, and how it fitted into the great scheme of the plotting – word by word and in the immense sweeping verses. The dramaturgical clarity of the theme of Shakespeare’s poetics, such as in the use of the word “nothing”, and the collective weight of the imaging of the importance of “sight” and “sightlessness” throughout the text, of equivocation, and madness, of villainy and unspeakable violence, and the seething sexual sado-mascochism of friends and foes was easy to appreciate. The production was probably clearer in the rehearsal room without the pyrotechnics of the Set, Costumes, Light and Sound to complicate stuff, I might suppose, guess.

To begin with the best:

Geoffrey Rush was magnificent as Lear. The craft skills were spectacular to be with, the vocal attack and power (though once or thrice, too fast) startling, enhanced by laser-like focus and tactful effort in subsuming the emotional identifications and deeply mined truths in the great arc of the demands of Shakespeare’s king/man. Driven with a vision of the role, Mr Rush possessed it with a grip of majestic control, a force of creative craft, ripe for the task, that exposed the ART of being a poor player strutting and fretting on the stage as our surrogate for great confrontations and ‘horrible’ revelations about humanity at its basest. This was a great performance (from Row D, at least.)

Helen Buday, as Goneril, amazing, every moment of active thought, physical gesture and held presence, bristling with clues beneath its surface calm, decisive and apparently spontaneous in its actions. The speaking of text and mastery of voice immaculate in its euphonic affect to our senses and ears, combined with a listening stillness that was electrifying. It was hard to shift focus from her when she was on stage. Mr Rush was her equal but no-one else much, least of all, Ms Thomson’s usual, unsurprising ‘sexed-up’ reading of her role, Regan.

Mark Leonard Winter as Edgar/Mad Tom, clear in his character construction and off the richter-scale in his daring to deliver to us a contemporary image of goodness and desperation – I have never thrilled to an Edgar before this – such an Edgar! Jacek Koman was the dignified epitome of a loyal and reliable (patient) Kent – steadfast, a stilled eye in the centre of the storm, helpless and/but there when needed. Wade Briggs brought some real sureness and visual sophistication to his many tasks, particularly, the King Of France, but principally Oswald, in the editing of his work in the play script.
Nick Masters, Alan Dukes, Eugene Gilfedder, Colin Moody too, all vital to their contribution to the storytelling.

However, Eryn Jean Norvill was bland, wan, in her ‘modish’ reading of Cordelia and hardly engendered a presence, let alone an empathy for us to comprehend the unjustness of Cordelia’s position and treatment either at the start of the play or at its end.

It is a pity that Mr Armfield edited out the first hundred or so lines to the opening of the play, where Shakespeare introduces the sub-plot of the over-cocky Gloucester and his scheming bastard son, Edmund. For Meyne Wyatt, as Edmund, then had to play to an audience with his first great speech; “Thou, nature, art my goddess …” (it reminiscent of the Richard III invitation to board his roller-coaster journey of villainy: “Now is the winter of our discontent … ” at the start of that play) without everyone knowing who he was or how he fitted into the jigsaw of the Lear deconstruction of the world with his daughters – for some of us, it was a breathless chase to catch-up, fathom, every time Edmund appeared as to what was going on, and certainly, the uncertainty of an uncomfortable, unsteady, Max Cullen as Gloucester, his father, was no aid to the smoothing of clarity to this most important, textually enhancing sub-plot to its principle one of Lear and his daughters. Mr Wyatt was extremely interesting to wrestle with, with his choices – an original and brave take of the role.

A theatre friend has suggested to me that the opening of any of Shakespeare’s plays should not be tampered with. Trust Shakespeare knows what he is doing, he says – I tend, with less knowledge, to agree. The recent Bell Shakespeare, even the Cumberbatch HAMLET, tinkered with that play’s opening, dramatic set-up, and undermined the power of the dramaturgy, let alone its theatrical invention, so, too, here with Mr Armfield’s tampering with Act 1, Scene 1, of KING LEAR.

This production began with a Marilyn Monroeesque figure, stalking out of the gloom of the black-box set to a micro-phone dead centre on the stage edge and then singing, with consummate cheek, a pastiche of the famous Kennedy Happy Birthday song (words altered to suit a King rather than President) accompanied by a live boom-crash sound, for only, at its end, for this age-haunted figure to pull off her Marilyn coiffured wig, to reveal a white-haired, glittering-eyed mocker, with a Mo-like snigger that brawled out a noise that signified a: “Gotcha” – a great moment in the theatre – I felt, a coup de theatre – that alas, was never topped in its bravura again in this production, and it seems, on reflection, to have been a false start, a false promise of insightful cheek of contemporary style for this King Lear, and was, ultimately, only a superfluity of a vain kind.

This was the introduction to Robyn Nevin’s Fool. This production dressed in the television Dynasty/Dallas ’80’s fashion exaggerations, for the some part, has the Fool played by Ms Nevin at what looks-like, an Aussie second-string ‘bookie’ bloke, in a ‘depression-era’, ill fitting three piece suit, with hat – the other-sex doppelgänger of her famous Miss Docker from her performance in Patrick White’s THE CHEERY SOUL, aeons ago, or, if you have the memory, her Parliamentarian in THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY (there are extant photographs of that production that connect with an unerring straight-line to this invention.) There is wit and some Music Hall physical niftiness from Ms Nevin with this playing to off-stage band effects, but her vocals are unintelligible, mostly, (it seems the breath support of her voice is weak, the ‘guts’ of the sound missing – the consonants, however, still pinging through her electronic boosting) and we find ourselves wanly smiling at the physical dexterity instead of wondering at the astuteness of this verbal Fool beside his wilful King. It is the allying of the King with his Fool and their verbal jousting that distinguishes the writing of this revolutionary pairing (a King and a Fool) – and its interdependency of the personal trust and mutual understanding of the two lead actors is essential for an unusually intimate and endearing bond – it seems Richard Burbage and Robert Armin had that. It was not so bonded here, I felt.

In Shakespeare’s Company their first star comedian, Will Kemp, famous for his improvisational and physical style, reminiscently suggested by the work and choice’s of Ms Nevin and Mr Armfield with the creation of this Fool, had long since left for a solo career, to be then replaced during the latter time of the King’s Men, by Robert Armin, a comic more adept with his sardonic wit than physical dexterity (Touchstone, in AS YOU LIKE IT; Feste, in TWELFTH NIGHT, are other examples of the writing Shakespeare was able to fashion for this actor.) It was the role of the Fool in Lear, a role not conceived by Shakespeare before or after, as James Shapiro in his book: 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, tells us which was ‘witty, pathetic, lonely, angry and prophetic in turn, a part rich in its quips and snippets of ballads, and the kind of sharp exchanges for which Armin was famous.’ In this production we lose most of the wit of the text in Ms Nevin’s weak vocal rendition and without that, part of the power of the tragedy of King Lear is undercut. We have a Will Kemp instead of a Robert Armin in Ms Nevin’s contribution to Mr Armfield’s KING LEAR. The intimacy of relationship between King and Fool is not fully available for the audience. It is this weakness, combined with the blandness of Ms Norvill’s Cordelia, that ultimately injures the production and the power of Mr Rush’s creation at its tragic climax. No tears were shed at this production’s ending. So different to my first memory of this play way back in the Old Tote days, in the Science Theatre, when Ron Graham as Lear, begged for the feathers to move, with her breath, at the dead Cordelia’s lips. I was a student in the back of the “gods” and begged for them to move through my streaming tears.

Shakespeare in the time of James’ King’s Men, was mostly, it seems, retired from acting on the stage. He was able to spend more time on the preparation and writing of the texts. From the evidence of the plays themselves, that we have, this may be so. As well as KING LEAR, this Jacobethan writer wrote MACBETH (King James had a special interest in witches, witchcraft and necromancy, and the Devil – he had written DAEMONOLOGUE in 1597, a three book  dialogue between an enlightened sage and an eager disciple), and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, in around the period of 1606. All three, perhaps to please the propagandising of King James’ political interests and ambitions. Imagine the bounty of a King’s reign that had such outlasting literature and stage work as these plays of Shakespeare, and this King’s other great commission, the verbal beauty of the KING JAMES BIBLE. Unfortunately, the political unification that James so much wanted was not, officially, recognised until almost a full century later in 1707. The religious harmony he also sought, to bring about a unity among all the divisions of Christianity – English, Calvinist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox – because they shared a common heritage, has never, really, been achieved – a kind of tolerance, only.

It would be good for Mr Turnbull and other Ministers of Australia’s Parliament to muse on this heritage of James’ reign, and its support of the arts, as they cut into our national arts funding – don’t you think?  I heard Sir Simon Rattle talking this morning: “A nation loses its art and culture at its own peril.” It seems to me the government needs more than ‘number-crunchers’/corporate investors to safeguard and drive our societal policies. The human spirit as well as its flesh needs nurturing, I would have thought.

KING LEAR at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, an event of theatre, whatever its supposed waywardnesses, a must for all theatre lovers to have witnessed. I think you must have it in your memory banks and consciousness. A mighty work mightily tackled. Controversial, for me to say so, some will argue. But, I was seated in D Row! Apparently an advantage to other seating!


  1. David Teems, 2010, Majestie: The King Behind The King James Bible, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.

Recommended further reading:

  1. James Shapiro, 2015, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber and Faber. London.
  2. Antonia Fraser, 1996, Faith and Reason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, Doubleday, New York.