This mix of Shakespearean tragedy and Aboriginal history makes for a compelling piece of theatre.
“Is this the end of the world?”, asks Gloucester (Frances Djulibing), one of the last surviving characters in the concluding scene of The Shadow King. As an inventive re-imagining of King Lear, The Shadow King remains faithful to familiar Shakespearean themes - gruesome deaths, annihilation of family ties and the downfall of a great kingdom - that all culminate to form a climactic finale on the brink of an apocalyptic doom. The Shadow King is undoubtedly a Shakespearean tragedy, but it still stays true to the rich Aboriginal history and lavish tradition of oral storytelling. Leading actor Tom E. Lewis and director Michael Kantor re-mediate a famous Western narrative for Indigenous culture to produce a deeply thought-provoking and assuredly moralistic performance.
Set in the Northern Territory, The Shadow King begins with Lear (Lewis) who tells his three daughters that he is going to divide his land, according to which of them loves him the most. His first two daughters flatter him profusely, but his youngest, Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick), speaks earnestly about a daughter's understated love for her father. Furious, Lear disowns and banishes her. Gradually, a tale of retribution and madness unfolds.
Playing the title character, Lewis appears most comfortable as the initially fun-loving and jovial king. Backed by an excellent live band, Lewis's Lear enjoyably dances and sings along to cheerful tunes. Later on, as he is exiled from his land, he plunges deep into the unforgiving Australian wilderness which mirrors his venture towards the realm of the deranged. However, appearing more aloof than demented, Lewis struggles in fully encapsulating the plight of the madman. It seems that any empathy for Lear's downfall lies more with the riveting writing and Kantor's assured direction.
'We are all married now,' the malignant Edmund (Jimi Bani) quietly utters, close to his death. True enough, all the characters' lives are purposefully intertwined. Their fate is explained by the aligning of the stars, or perhaps, their destinies are all a result of Edmund's cunning manipulation. Bani shines as the vicious Edmund, declaring gripping soliloquies that display his devious plans and monstrous nature. His gradual progression to a heinous tyrant is thoroughly convincing, and wickedly absorbing.
In contrast is Hick's Cordelia, whose innocence and goodness comes off as, at times, contrived. Hick still remains an assured presence onstage, and her final scene with Lear is moving. The malicious nature of the sisters, Goneril (Jada Alberts) and Regan (Natasha Wanganeen), is heavily downplayed. The sisters appear to be unknowingly exploited by Edmund, and near the end, they even show remorse at what they have done to their father. Kantor's intentions in portraying nearly compassionate sisters are rather questionable and never explained in the tale.
Carrying a dillybag around her neck, Djulibing's Gloucester is an imposing figure who speaks in cryptic prophecies and represents an older generation that values tradition. Djulibing gives a dignified portrayal of an emotionally wounded mother, effortlessly evoking sympathy from the audience. Kamahi Djordon King plays the amiable narrator, and Damion Hunter's Edgar transformation into Poor Tom, a bush spirit, is undoubtedly haunting.
Kantor expertly includes delicious details of Aboriginal culture in The Shadow King primarily through language. The play is mainly spoken in English, interwoven with a few direct quotes from the original text itself, and most strikingly, includes traditional tongues, such as Kriol, the Yumpla Tok language from Torres Strait Creole and the Gupapuyngu language from Yolngu. The translation is a collaborative project approved by the cast and the various tongues spoken helps in adding an intricate layer of richness to the show.
Although Kantor's fixation with the aural is evident, the visual elements easily takes center stage. With a massive industrial prop that is akin to a device from an abandoned mining site, the characters make full use of the luxurious amount of space around them. The revolving prop also has lights akin to the spotlights of Edmund's truck when he is out on the hunt, and a huge video screen helps in delivering an appropriate setting for every scene. From the warm hues to convey an evening sun to the unforgiving fluorescent light of a shabby jail cell, Paul Jackson's lighting design is immaculately done too. Most of all, the lighting plays an integral part in the varying shades of the red sand on the stage floor to, for example, convey blood being spilled.
The Shadow King ultimately boils down to the fundamental message of the story that befittingly suits the country: the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land. This visually compelling performance is robust yet delicate; plainly unembellished yet thoroughly captivating. As a dramatic re-appropriation of a classic tale, The Shadow King is a remarkably innovative and highly memorable piece of theatre.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5
The Shadow King
Malthouse Theatre & Melbourne Festival in association with Sydney Festival, Perth International Arts Festival, Adelaide Festival & Brisbane Festival.
Creators: Tom E. Lewis & Michael Kantor
Director: Michael Kantor
Music Consultant: Iain Grandage
Music Director: John Rodgers
Sound Designer: Kelly Ryall
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Set Designers: Paul Jackson, Michael Kantor & David Miller
Props & Costume Designer: Ruby Langton-Batty
Dramaturg: Marion Potts
Film: Natasha Gadd, Rhys Graham & Murray Lui
Producer: Jo Porter
Cast: Jada Alberts, Jimi Bani, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Damion Hunter, Kamahi Djordon King, Tom E Lewis, Natasha Wanganeen
Band: Selwyn Burns, Jason Tamiru, Bart Willoughby
Malthouse Theatre, Southbank
11-27 October 2013
Image: Malthouse Theatre website