Equating Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ to the Indigenous community disputes over land ownership in Northern Australia, ‘The Shadow King’ borrows richly from Lear and intersperses it with its own dialect and language and culture and what we have as a result is a natural and Australian version of a familiar play. Lear’s army is his mob and the tragedy of a blinkered possession of the land makes us do desperate and dastardly things until nature reminds us that no-one has domain over it.
Co-created by Tom E. Lewis and Michael Kantor, who also directed the play, accompanied by live music and on screen film projections over an epic and imposing set, designed by Kantor, Paul Jackson and David Miller, ‘The Shadow King’ adds a new dimension to an old story of patriarchy, monarchy and sibling rivalry. The play does lack a control which means that vocals sometimes struggle to compete over the music and speech lacks clarity at times and although the premise is a simple and honest version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the audience is working hard to give the language and rhythm coherence. But thankfully the energy of the show and the skill and authenticity of its performers, especially Lewis, Jimi Bani and Jada Alberts give the production an integrity that make it infinitely watchable and poignant.
Bay 17 at Carriageworks, my new favourite venue in Sydney, has been transformed into an Australian outback landscape and you literally have to tread over the red earth to navigate your way into your seat. The tank-like proportions of the movable set that connects to a grandstand and doorway of interior homes, jail cells and caves is one of the best uses of technology, metaphor and environment. The eyes of the tank look out onto the desert with a spot firmly on the abandoned crown, another creative idea expressed in the lighting design by Jackson.
I loved that the ghosts still have a presence on stage, which only seems right that the spirits of those killed still wander this land and led the living to find their way. I loved that ‘madness’ and ritual were closely connected and until you embraced the spirit-world and its lessons, your soul was as lost as your sense and sanity. Also interesting was the curse imposed by the father on his children for their treatment of him or that we see his daughters may ‘own’ the land's riches but in real terms, it does not provide them with wealth and they are just as desperate and poor as always. It is the potential of the land and its development that makes them embark on a villainy that sits like a rock of regret and fractures their ultimate intentions and life.
‘The Shadow King’ is a rough diamond with interesting parallels from an aristocratic English world to our own tribal connections. This play is epic, exciting and uniquely Australian and the inclusion of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait instruments and music with rock almost crosses this play into a semi-contemporary musical. There is humour aplenty and also a dig here and there, such as Cordelia’s (Rarriwuy Hick) and Lear’s (Lewis) imprisonment when she tries to comfort her father in the cell, reminding him that “prison is something our people are familiar with” or when we are told of Cordelia’s death in custody, made to look like suicide.
I commend this play to you as an insightful look at how relevant the themes of Shakespeare plays are in this local context and the play is a visual feast of ideas. Catch it as part of the festival season.