Bell Shakespeare Company
His Majesty’s Theatre
reviewed by Neville Cohn
As is well known, the perfidy of King Lear’s ghastly daughters Goneril and Regan tips him over the edge into insanity after he abdicates and gives each one half of his kingdom – a very foolish move as becomes apparent later. And Cordelia, who loves Lear in the most genuine sense, is disinherited and meets a terrible end as well.
But there’s probably a case for supposing that Lear had begun to lose his grip on reality before disinheriting Cordelia and giving his kingdom to her appalling sisters. Consider this: is it a rational move to base so pivotal a decision as disposition of a kingdom entirely on the basis of an answer to this question: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? “
Has Lear been deaf and blind up until that point? Has he over the years not formed a clear view how his daughters relate to him? Not to have done so suggests that there is something very wrong with the old man. And is his reaction to sweet Cordelia’s answer rational? No, it is the act of someone who is losing contact with reality. Dementia, perhaps?
Nothing so clearly indicates the timeless and universal nature of the predicament Lear finds himself in than Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel A Thousand Acres which is a modern take on the Lear story, set not in early Britain but a 20th-century farm in rural Iowa, US A.. Smiley adds a further dimension – the protracted sexual abuse by the father which makes this an even more disturbing tale than the Lear original.
In this 20th anniversary production of Bell Shakespeare Company, John Bell demonstrated the form that has made him a legend in Australian dramatic circles.
His bearing and diction brought the stamp of authority to every syllable uttered, to every gesture in the eponymous role. It was a model of its kind, the disintegration of Lear’s mind evoked to painful effect.
Lavish laurels to Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Goneril and Rachel Gordon as Regan each of whom comes across strongly as the essence of daughterly ingratitude.
Violence of both word and hand is here in abundance, not least in the hideously cruel blinding of Gloucester (played by Bruce Myles), an instant of horror in which a flash of searing white light and bloodcurdling scream as the horrible deed is done make for stunning theatre.
There are no weak links in the cast; each contributes something of worth to the overall production. I particularly admired the artistry of Peter Carroll as Fool. Step forward, sir, and take a well deserved bow for a first rate contribution. Peter Kowitz, too, as the Earl of Kent, did well.
As an ensemble, the company is impressive in conveying the cumulative power of the play in a way that calls to mind the words of former USA President Woodrow Wilson who, in a quite different context, spoke of “experiencing history to flashes of lightning”.
As well, I cannot too highly praise the musicianship of Bree van Reyk, percussionist extraordinaire. Discreetly positioned to one side of the stage before a bank of percussion instruments, she employed artistry at a consistently high level with a range of sound effects that did much to enhance the impact of on-stage word and deed.
Nick Schliepers’s discreet lighting design strikingly complements Marion Potts’ direction.