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Double Bill: Shakespeare's Queens and The Madness of King Lear

CW Productions & Straylight Australia
Arts Theatre

Double Bill: Shakespeare's Queens and The Madness of King Lear

This is a programme of two pieces that originated in Australia and comes to London after appearing at the Edinburgh Festival.

Shakespeare’s Queens: She-wolves and Serpents

This play by Kath Perry presents us with Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots meeting in the afterlife where they are joined by William Shakespeare.

They have very different attitudes to how you rule and your duties as a queen. Elizabeth Tudor would never allow a consort to take the reins of power from her hands while Mary Stuart sees it a queen’s duty to produce an heir. With Shakespeare’s arrival, they take a look at the queens in his plays. Individually, they act out their key scenes while Shakespeare is roped in to play all the male roles.

From the British history plays, we get Goneril and Regan from King Lear, the Queen from Cymbeline, Lady Macbeth, Queen Eleanor and Constance from King John, Isabel from Richard II, Katherine and Queen Isabeau from Henry V, Queen Margaret from Henry VI and Richard III, together with Queen Elizabeth and Lady Anne, and Katherine and Anne Boleyn from Henry VIII.

There is Queen Gertrude from Hamlet, Tamora from Titus Andronicus Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra, Hermione from A Winter’s Tale and even Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

That is quite a gathering of monarchs but it does not really advance the discussion of what a queen should be and how she should behave. There is a measure of irony in which queen, Elizabeth or Mary, takes on which character, especially with Elizabeth playing Katherine of Aragon, but I really couldn’t see much point.

There is no great depth of characterisation, though some foreign queens, including Cleopatra, are given accents. It feels more like a sequence of audition speeches than something with dramatic content, despite the banter that goes on between Kathy Perry and Rachel Ferris as the Queens and Patrick Trumpery’s Shakespeare. He seems to be following the theory that as an actor Shakespeare didn’t take on major roles for he plays all his parts the same, delivered with the same stresses.

The Madness of King Lear

This is a piece, originally devised by Leof Kingsford-Smith (who plays Lear) and Shakti, that mixes physical theatre techniques with Shakespeare’s text.

It was apparently conceived as an “aftermath” to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Looking back, the King and Fool re-explore the story. It engages the attention in a way that its companion performance does not. It is a shame that those of the first night audience who left at the interval did not stay to see it.

It uses sound (Andrew Kingsford-Smith) and setting (Kasper Hansen) to build theatrical effect and is lit dramatically by Stephen Dean, though a little too darkly to make it possible to read all the indications of where things are going that the Lucas R Tsolaklan’s Fool chalks up as things progress. These two performers produce a special chemistry together under Sara Fernandez Reyes’s direction.

Kingsford-Smith gives Lear a bemused stature and a rich delivery, though it is not always comprehensible, especially when swamped by his own sound score. Tsolakian, acting out Regan, Goneril and Cordelia with his intriguing vocal technique and the help of a green fan and a red feather is always watchable and continually surprises.

Lear now is beyond rage, a man who in recapitulating his own history perhaps gains understanding under the Fool’s instruction. Can Lear not bear that self-awareness? Is that why this Fool is made to suffer a re-enactment of Gloucester’s blinding?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton