Theatre Review: MTC’s ‘Queen Lear’
Switching from a King to a Queen isn’t as simple as sticking Lear in a dress and changing a few of Shakespeare’s pronouns here and there. A mother who demands that her daughters compete for her love is different from a father who asks the same thing. The dynamics of the filial relationship are changed entirely. Thankfully, the enormous role of Lear is left in the capable hands of the glorious Robyn Nevin. As the aging queen, Nevin is terrifying, mercurial, wild – and ultimately pitiful. When she howls “I am a woman more sinned against than sinning”, it’s the grief of a child unjustly reproved, and it’s gutting.
Much has been made of the MTC’s production of one of Shakespeare’s most powerful plays. Under director and dramaturgist Rachel McDonald, far less importance is placed on political events and warfare, ensuring the focus remains on domestic drama. While this intensifies the complexity of the mother-child relationships, it also means that the vastness of Lear’s power is weakened: indeed, that duality of a patriarchy both familial and political is lost entirely. The play does feel smaller for it – characters like Cornwall and Edmund feel unimportant, while Cordelia’s French suitor has been purged from the script altogether.
The stronger performances are very, very strong. Robert Menzies’ Kent is everything you want him to be –earnest, clever, utterly loyal; a man who endures through suffering. Richard Piper makes a powerful impression as Gloucester, who falls victim to the same filial betrayal as Lear. We only wished we’d seen more of him. When he steps toward the edge of a “cliff” in a suicide attempt, blind and unable to recognise the ground is flat, it’s almost unbearable: but Lear cradles him, as a mother might a child. It’s one of the production’s most dramatic, yet most tender moments. And for us, it’s the quintessential image of Lear – a character whose “hideous rashness” will see her divested of all power, left base and emotionally impoverished.
Unfortunately, Alexandra Schepisi as Cordelia is unable to match these performances. Her accent rolls around; she fumbles a few lines. Rather than the fundamentally good youngest daughter, unwilling to engage in her mother’s game but remaining faithful and kind, she seems uncertain; passionless. Thus the fate suffered by Regan, for example (played with calculated bitterness by Belinda McClory), elicits a much stronger emotional response from the audience than Cordelia’s unjust demise. (We’re not giving anything away here – it’s a Shakespearian tragedy, so by the end, you know there has to be a certain quota of corpses and eloquently mournful bystanders.)
The decision to reimagine the character of the Fool as a mere voice in Lear’s head is an odd one. In Shakespeare’s text, the Fool commentates Lear’s behaviour as her sanity dwindles. His language at once undermines the polite, pompous nature of the court, and illuminates its flaws. All of this is lost in McDonald’s production. The Fool’s strange and wonderful character is watered down to a chorus of sing-songy voices in ghostly white nighties. Did we mention they pop out of a retractable phallic structure? (More on that later.) Above all, it seems incongruous to give the already-conflicted Lear an imagined voice to deal with, when it’s obvious she’s demented. Lear’s speech in Act 3 is confused enough – this is the bit where she’s out in the woods in the middle of a storm, remember, banging on about madness and reason and justice – without shoving any more inner conflict in there.
The sets and costumes shared a steampunk vibe, which was more distracting than complementary. The first scene, for instance, sees Lear in a striking blood-red gown, Regan as an aubergine Madame Lash, and Cordelia in the flowing peasant garb of a 1970s church camp leader. Tracy Grant Lord’s set design is eerie but bizarre. Hanging chains – presumably symbolic of filial bonds – gave the stage the austere feel of the court, but the metallic fountain (from whence the Fool emerged) simply feels like a lazy Freudian allusion. When Lear is raging in the bleak, stormy night, she’s surrounded by barbed wire. It fits with the industrial theme of the overall design, but it also felt more like the exterior of a Gulag camp than the wretched wilderness; as a result, the primitive forces, disorder and “nature” she battles against lose their potency.
On the whole, however, it is Lear who matters, and Nevin’s performance had us spellbound. The final scene, with Lear weeping in resignation over Cordelia’s body, takes on a different significance when it’s a mother mourning her child. Like the character of Queen herself, Rachel McDonald’s production is certainly not without its foibles – but it’s a compelling show nonetheless.