Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 24 June 2016

Review: The Shadow King at the Barbican

Barbican Theatre ⋄ 22nd June - 2nd July 2016

“The land was never any man’s to sell”: David Ralf reviews Malthouse Theatre’s adaptation of King Lear.

David Ralf
The Shadow King at the Barbican. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The Shadow King at the Barbican. Photo: Jeff Busby.

This is a strange one. Because I’m writing this review of The Shadow King in a different land to the one in which I sat in the Barbican Theatre last night: the closing of the polls, the counting, the declaration of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the resignation of our Prime Minister. I do not think the company from Malthouse Theatre, Australia will mind.

Their version of King Lear – telling a story that is not just British, but British to its mythic bones – is set in Australia. Kamahi Djordon King, the Fool, guides us into the rehousing of Lear in Modern English and Kriol, telling us that he gives us our stories retold as Aboriginal people would retell ‘milli milli’ – stories from their own literary tradition – and using with singing and music from an onstage band whose upbeat Australian reggae is as overtly political as the rest of the production.

A successful man, Lear, hands over the fruits of his success to his daughters: land he has bought according to white men’s laws. The Barbican Theatre stage is covered with copper sand. It is kicked about, passes through closed fists, holds discarded, bloody daggers.

It is all about the land. Rattling through the play in 95 minutes, land is again and again at the heart of the production. The Fool even tells us as much, making clear that Lear finds his errors in the wilderness, guided by Edgar, disguised with traditional Aboriginal white paint across his near naked body. The land was never any man’s to sell, not Lear’s to buy, not his to shrug off responsibility for.

And this morning I feel that I need to walk this country. London has voted to remain in the EU. Every other region in England has voted to leave it. Around the country people are celebrating a hard-fought victory, and almost everyone I know is swallowing bitter defeat – many of them campaigners, several of them who have actively participated in political campaigning for the first time in their lives. They are also mostly Londoners.

I am one of the bewildered Remainers blinking with disbelief this morning – but if we do not actively (re)connect politically and culturally with the towns and the people and the land of this country beyond the M25 we will stay bewildered.

But we do not have a second to rave atop chalky cliffs. The Shadow King’s condensed action (Gloucester’s blinding happens in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it transition) makes the transition from Edmund’s charismatic underdog trickster to murderous backstabbing warlord feel like a smash cut. And we are surrounded by supposed leaders who are just as snakelike as Jimi Bani’s Edmund, just as self-interested and short-sighted as Goneril and Regan, who stand on the metallic edifices above the land (and as the play goes on, barely get their feet dirty with it), and win us again and again with soundbites and saccharine lies, whose only concern is to get into each other’s pockets, each other’s beds, each other’s positions.

It’s an incredibly focused production – using Lear as a convenient structure for its own ends, as opposed to serving a play, and seeing whether it has anything to say. In these hand, King Lear is the story of folks that have been hurt, and are wary of being hurt again. While it never leaves the landscape and the specificity of Aboriginal experience, there’s so much that resonates to this very moment in the UK.

The only hope is the hope that can be found in the very first scene of the play, in the radical love of Cordelia, a love that is not selfish, a love that is not a soundbite. A love that in Rarriwuy Hick’s mouth sounds so simple and so magically unfamiliar in a single moment.

A love that is also too silent. And rediscovered too late.

The Shadow King is on until 2nd July 2016. Click here for more information.

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David Ralf

David Ralf is a writer and critic in London. He won the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award for reviewing at the ISDF in 2012, and the Kenneth Tynan Prize for his reviews for the Oxford Theatre Review in 2011. He draws pens and doodles at Pens by Pens.

Review: The Shadow King at the Barbican Show Info


Directed by Michael Kantor

Written by Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis, after Shakespeare

Cast includes Jada Alberts, Jimi Bani, Kamahi Djordon King, Frances Djlibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Damion Hunter, Tom E Lewis, Natasha Wanganeen

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