The Auckland Theatre Company’s production of King Lear is an astonishing, dynamic and truly mesmerising rendition of the well-known Shakespearian epic tragedy. World-class, innovative storytelling, with non-traditional staging, fabulous costumes, thought-provoking details and storming performances from a stellar cast.
Using a traverse stage, the audience are seated on either side of a long, white corridor, flanked on one side by mirrors. Whilst it is a little disarming to be seated on stage, with the remainder of the audience in the traditional auditorium presumably able to view you behind the action occurring, it reinforces the point that this is a royal court and that political machinations are observed on a far wider scale – as we’ve seen with the current monarchy!
Indeed, it’s easy to draw parallels concerning favoured offspring, both royal and otherwise, in the dividing up of the realm between Lear’s daughters and in the preferences and power struggle between Gloucester’s children, Edmund and Edgar. It’s all very Succession – and, like that show, all very stylish and filled with self-centred, entitled characters.
The staging is complemented by lighting which throws long, menacing, metaphorical shadows across the action. At times, like the play, it’s very dark. Twin Peaks-style sounds of discord are thrown in, throwing the audience into a state of tension, with thunder and rainfall (both audible and, amazingly, literal!) enhancing the menacing tone. Michael Hurst, as Lear, is on stage for a remarkably large amount of the play, facing the mirrored wall in self-contemplation – or possibly, as co-director of the piece, keeping an eye on what his cast are doing?
Hurst, in the title role, does an admirable job. Despite the character’s arrogance, his performance allows the audience to feel real tenderness toward the monarch as he descends into madness – proving that, like his subjects, he’s just a man. In this interpretation, nothing is black and white – other than the majority of Elizabeth Whiting’s sumptuously stylish costuming.
However, dressed in a long, earth-toned Gaberdine, it is Jennifer Ward-Lealand, as the Duchess of Kent, who proves to be the most “grounded” member of court – and who, in my opinion, steals the show. Affecting an admirable Yorkshire accent in her disguised role as Caius, she loyally follows the king in his travels and turmoil. Ward-Lealand’s mana, humility and humour are spot-on in adapting a traditionally male role.
The rest of the ensemble are also outstanding, and Hurst and co-director Benjamin Kirby-Henson are to be commended on ensuring that each actor obviously understands their own role and character motivation, as well as the way in which they interact, vie for power and serve their own interests. Hester Ullyart, as The Fool, throws herself into character for both light relief and cutting insights, whilst Beatriz Romilly and Joe Dekkers-Reihana, as siblings Edmund and Edgar, both give compelling performances.
King Lear is vicious, tragic and bloody – quite literally, with blood staining the white staging after believable combat taking place only metres away from the audience. It’s confronting and jarring but enjoyable – a theatrical experience which takes the audience away from everyday Auckland into a parallel, timeless realm which shares our struggles, frustrations and foibles. Don’t be put off by the language, by it being Shakespeare or by your school memories. This is an adaptation which supersedes all that and which definitely shouldn’t be missed.
KING LEAR – Auckland Theatre Company
ASB Waterfront Theatre: runs until 9 July 2023. Book tickets HERE.
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