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The Madness of King LearThe Madness of King Lear is essentially King Lear recast as a three-hander, taking place entirely in Lear and Cordelia’s prison cell and alternating between the present and meditations on the past, flashbacks recapping the events leading up to Lear’s exile. It is a study in madness to the extent that the ageing King’s mind begins to wander and that the actors playing Cordelia and the Fool (Kiruna Stamell and Emma Hawkins, respectively), taking on various roles as needed, seem sometimes to mock Lear with their recollections and at other times are simply channelling the story. It could be said that most of the play is internal dialogue between Lear (Richard Davey) and himself as he comes to terms with his predicament and reflects with dismay on the foolishness that has left him a king without a kingdom – “Lear’s shadow”.

Where this production is somewhat lacking is in the relationship between Lear and Cordelia – important to any King Lear but especially so when most of the cast has been excised. Although Stamell plays Cordelia with forcefulness and vigour, it’s difficult to imagine that the two are really father and daughter; there doesn’t seem to be much tenderness there. Perhaps this is a result of Stamell depicting other characters as well, so the reality of her Cordelia becomes a little hazy. This is of course one of the dangers of this kind of revisionist exercise, that in putting many characters in the mouths of only two actors (Davey only ever plays Lear and his performance feels much more grounded as a result) the waters will be muddied.

In any event, frankly King Lear as written is probably complicated enough for modern audiences to cope with without it being chopped up and rearranged. And making the play a more abstract proposition means moving away from the sort of straight-forward storytelling that is at the heart of Shakespeare’s enduring popularity. Certainly such a chance may prove worth taking – but a similar problem arises when it comes to dramatising the concept of ‘madness’ itself. The risk is that as the character loses his grip on reality, so the audience will begin to lose its grip on a sense of the narrative, for all that this very loosening of structure can be shocking and exhilarating. Simply put, it’s pretty hard to pull off. In this instance, the effect is intermittently successful. 

Nevertheless, Davey is a striking Lear, and his moments of emotional anguish are compelling. He lopes around the stage, shaggy-headed and wearing an army greatcoat and slippers, a cross between someone’s doddery old grandad and a general home from the wars. Interesting also is the sheer physicality of Stamell and Hawkins’ approach – they fling themselves about with energy and comic panache, adding new layers of meaning to their words. 

Occasionally the trio seems about to launch into another show altogether, with Lear’s despondency lifting to be replaced by the attitude of a cynical vaudeville performer – self-aware, weary, and somehow untouched by events, almost in the manner of the MC in Cabaret or Thénardier in Les Misérables. These moments are rather curious and it’s a pity the characters then have to return to the progress of the play. After all, most of the audience knows King Lear well, so there’s an inevitability to proceedings, reminiscent of the predicament in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guildernstern Are Dead of characters longing to change their fates – to have a life beyond the play, in effect.

Davey mentions in his program notes that he toyed with the idea of writing new dialogue for Cordelia and Lear to address the question of what the two might have discussed through those long hours in prison. It would have been fascinating to see what such an experiment might have produced. As it is, the potential for radical departures is palpable here, but such impulses are reined in fairly swiftly. Why not go for it? Why not let go of the text when it feels right, and take the characters somewhere else altogether? All in all, this is a worthy enterprise, if not entirely satisfying, and a unique night of theatre.

The Round Earth Company, in association with Atypical Theatre, presents
The Madness of King Lear
Devised by Richard Davey, based on the play by William Shakespeare

Venue: Peacock Theatre
Dates: November 29th to December 9th
Times: Monday to Saturday 8.00pm; Sunday 3.00 pm
Tickets: Adult $35 Concession $25 Student $20
Bookings: Theatre Royal and Centertainment

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