For the first thirty seconds I thought we were in for something special in Queen Lear. Robyn Nevin in the titular role, regally costumed in red, is lushly illuminated backstage studying her face in a mirror, a cameo blooming out of impenetrable darkness. Four corridors of light delineate the borders of the stage and she paces them slowly, marking out her realm. It is arresting and bold theatrical image-making. But almost nothing in this production bears out the opening promise. Misled, misconceived, misdirected, Queen Lear is almost baffling.
|Robyn Nevin in Queen Lear. Photo: Jeff Busby|
There's absolutely no reason why Nevin, one of our most majestic actors, should not play this towering role. What's much less clear is why Lear therefore had to be a woman. In Benedict Andrews's sublime The War of the Roses, Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe played Richard II and Richard III without changing the sex of the role: as I said at the time, "we are made pricklingly aware
that Richard is an actor, a player who is, moreover, a woman, Pamela
Rabe, who after the play is over will walk off the stage, strip off her
costume and take a shower. This double consciousness of performance is a
particularly Shakespearean trope, and Andrews has exploited it to the
hilt in The War of the Roses." The playing of the kings by women in that case heightened Shakespeare's essential theatricality, and brought the question of gender into intriguing play.
Here the assumption seems to be that feminising Lear has only a superficial effect on the play's meaning: as in a Lego set, all you have to do is take out the boy toy and stick in the girl toy. Since Lear is, among many other things, a profound study of patriarchy, one would expect that changing the sex of the title role might have been thought through a little more. Afterwards, seeking some clues, I read director and dramaturge Rachel McDonald's note in the program. It opens with a bald statement: "King Lear is a political story that also deals with revelation, reconciliation and the infinite". The "infinite"? O-kay...
McDonald then drags us through some pop psychobabble ("in dysfunctional relationships, we often fall into the roles of Bully, Rescuer or Victim. In this play we watch characters continually rotate their way through this Drama Triangle"). There's reference to single-parent families - Gloucester and Lear - and "abusive parenting". We are told that "Lear's gender is almost irrelevant. The play doesn't concern itself with gender issues..." And then, confusingly: "Our female Lear is not gender-neutral casting: we are not side-stepping the issue of gender. We are embracing it, imagining the story as written for a woman in the first place." What we have, according to McDonald, is a "re-focusing" of the story, with a bad mother instead of a bad father.
I really don't know where to begin with this, but it's fair to say this note reflects the production. Lear might not be about "gender issues", but gender plays into it all the time in complex and often ambiguous ways. Lear's gender isn't irrelevant: he is a king, an absolute patriarch, in a society that is absolutely patriarchal. This is a crucial aspect of his relationship with his daughters: Richard Eyre's domestic 1998 production, which focused on the family drama, drew this out brilliantly.
Moreover, you can't help reflecting that if Shakespeare had written Lear as a woman, it would have been an entirely different play. In Shakespeare's time there was a notable queen, Elizabeth I, a politically brilliant tyrant who retained power by the expedient of not marrying: unlike her unluckier cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, she knew very well that marriage would signal the death of her authority. Instead, she played her sex as the Virgin Queen ("Better beggar woman and single than Queen and married", as she famously told William Cecil). Queen Lear, the mother of three daughters, would be a very different creature to King Lear, the father. Imaginatively wrenching Lear into a story about a bad mother is by no means impossible, but it requires a deal more intellectual finesse than is on show here: such a central change has domino effects throughout the drama, and almost none of these are addressed.
McDonald's editing of the play is injudicious, to say the least. Much of this production makes no sense because important plot points (most grievously, the marriage of Cordelia to France and their subsequent invasion of England) have been cut altogether. Without the political framework of war, the treatment of Gloucester is reduced to reasonless sadism: we have no idea why he should be tortured. More significantly, the Fool - a role absolutely crucial to the central meanings of the play - is removed altogether, to be replaced by a series of appearances by the three daughters in ghostly nightgowns, voicing Lear's inner doubts.
The usual doubling is the Fool and Cordelia (in Shakespeare's play, the Fool mysteriously disappears after the storm scene, and we never hear what happens to him). In their mutual vulnerabilities and honesty, Cordelia and the Fool illuminate the humanity in Lear's psyche, its absence early in the play, and its revelation later: distributing the Fool between Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, and cutting Cordelia's story, completely dissipates the power of these roles. For these and other reasons, Lear loses her crucial moments of empathy, which in turn deprives the significant turns in the play - the prayer during the storm scene, or her reconciliation with Cordelia - of their potency.
The production itself is a startling instance of meaningless over-design. Niklas Pajanti's palette of absolute darkness and focused illumination is gorgeous, but Tracy Grant Lord's set is strangely bitty. Its main feature is golden chains descending from the ceiling: these are mostly used as prop carriers, so random objects (a bicycle, or a cage, or a landscape painting that presumably represents the realm) can be lowered. A lot of the time the chains just get in the way. As the play progresses, some of them keep falling, with a liquid sound, so their links pile up on the stage, but this didn't happen to all of them, which I found curiously irritating. I spent some fruitless time trying work out what they meant: were they the chains of power? If so, what did that mean? Or what?
Stage right is a weird phallic construction which seems merely superfluous. It rises and falls, sometimes acting as a plinth for a chair or a vision of the Fool, or as a fountain. I don't at all understand the convention of the costumes, which shift between Ruritania-style braided uniforms to contemporary dress to 1940s formal glamour to, I don't know, some kind of Slavic steampunk. Why is Edgar (Rohan Nicol) in preppie bicycle shorts, and why is it necessary for him to remain half naked as Poor Tom in the final fight with Edmund, when he is supposed to reveal as Edgar? Everything opens and closes and goes up and down, but nowhere is there any sense of a unifying vision.
It's not all bad news. In a plethora of performances that all seem to be from different productions, Robert Menzies's Kent is a beautiful and moving portrayal, and one of the few instances where the changing of gender makes sense: his loyalty to Lear is illuminated by a passionate, unspoken love. Greg Stone's wheelchair-bound Albany likewise makes strong work of a role that's often primly wishy-washy. In the second half, in scenes between Gloucester (Richard Piper) and Edgar, or Gloucester and Lear, there are flashes of what might have been: the poignancy of some of the greatest scenes ever written start to register, and you begin to see how changing the sex of Lear might have brought something new to the role.
Nevin's Lear is always virtuosic, but is so badly let down by the lack of a thought-through framework that her character remains cold and unmoving. In particular, too often the nuance is missing in an insistence on her femininity: ironically, she is at her best when she is arrogantly royal, or humbly human, without reference to her femaleness. Alexandra Schepisi in the crucial role of Cordelia is hampered because we have no idea what happens to her after Lear banishes her, and consequently little idea of who she is, but it has to be said that her performance is utterly flat.
The mother/daughter relationships between Goneril (Genevieve Picot), Regan (Belinda McClory) and Lear never sparked for me. These are the central relationships in this reading of the play, and yet somehow, despite fine efforts, they never made emotional sense. Picot was not always audible, either, despite being miked. I suspect the problem here is in dozens of tiny details: would Queen Lear really be carousing with her soldiers? Can Lear's speech about the sulphurous devilry of female sexuality really transfer with proper force to feminine self-hatred? How much sense does it make for a queen who has been shouting throughout the play to say "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman"? Wouldn't an aging, tyrannical queen jealously eye the youth and power of her daughters? And so on.
That these questions insist themselves demonstrate that "embracing gender" in the interpretation of this play is no simple thing. At the centre is the question of transgression: the rebellions of Regan and Goneril against their father have the more force in this hierarchical universe as they are transgressions against male authority. Lear's blind confidence in his authority is a very masculine entitlement: no woman in a position of power would be so cavalierly unaware of the consequences of relinquishing it. This is absolutely embedded in the play, for good or ill, and you can't solve that problem by ignoring it. If the production itself had not been so incompetent, perhaps we could have been beguiled into ignoring these questions, but the absurdities are overwhelming. The buck stops with the director here: this is a text that deserves a lot more respect. God, as Flaubert once said, is in the details.
Further reading: Brook's Lear
Queen Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed and adapted by Rachel McDonald. Design by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, sound design by Iain Grandage. With Robyn Nevin, Genevieve Picot, Belinda McClory, Alexandra Schepisi, Richard Piper, David Paterson, Rohan Nichol, Robert Menzies, Greg Stone and Nicholas Hammond. Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, until August 18.