Bell Shakespeare's New King Lear Understands The Joy Of A Good Tragedy

Author: Kirk Dodd

(MENAFN- The Conversation) It is a common reflex to reach for Aristotle's Poetics to determine what a good tragedy should be. Aristotle says there are good reasons to enjoy a good tragedy, especially if its ergon or telos (its function) works well. This function is to trigger the pleasure (in an audience) of experiencing catharsis .

According to Aristotle, catharsis concerns the purgation or“release” of troubling emotions such as pity and fear. While we tend to bottle up these emotions in everyday life, the tragic theatre provides a safe environment to bring them to the surface. As we sympathise with the plight of the tragic protagonist, this catharsis can be both healthy and humanising.

Aristotle also created a framework for the six core components that make up a good tragedy. The“plot” (course of action) was paramount, followed by the importance of the characters (not so much their physical expressions, but their dispositions). These“characters” were caused or generated by the plot according to the moral decisions they were forced to make. Next came the characters'“thoughts” (or dianoia), the language of the play (its tone and its gravitas), followed by the inclusion of song and spectacle (but not too much, or it becomes a comedy).

Bell Shakespeare's King Lear, directed by Peter Evans, delivers excitingly well on most of Aristotle's pointers for a good tragedy.

Tragic reckoning and solace

King Lear stands as a colossus of a play in Shakespeare's achievements, among the grandest efforts of his imagination. But Lear's dynastic downfall from being a king, to realising himself a mere father, to becoming a homeless old man, creates an epic sweep that could be difficult to contain in an intimate theatre called the“Nutshell”.

The Neilson Nutshell, Bell Shakespeare's primary theatre in Sydney, is a flexible space which can seat up to 300 people. Because Shakespeare's plays tend to be grand in scope, the Nutshell (named suitably after a line in Hamlet,“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space”) can be a tricky space to manage.

Anna Tregloan's enchanting set design creates a symbolic and mesmerising space. Brett Boardman/Bell Shakespeare

But Anna Tregloan's enchanting set design, a rounded stage of rolled gold flooring with a black centre-spot for characters to direct their soliloquies around to the different banks of seating, creates a symbolic and mesmerising space. This allows for a fluent orchestration of the play's many diversions. And hovering above the stage is a gold cosmic spiral, like a galaxy, and centred disc (the sun?) that proffers up a celestial expansion of the play's existential themes.

King Lear is about an ageing king (Robert Menzies) who decides to retire with plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters according to how well they articulate their love for him. When his eldest daughters, Goneril (Lizzie Schebesta) and Regan (Tamara Lee Bailey), flatter and fawn over him, he rewards them with large territories, even though they secretly dislike their father.

When his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Melissa Kahraman), refuses to stroke her father's ego, the king misconstrues her honesty as treachery and banishes her from the realm. As Goneril and Regan assume full power of the kingdom, they treat their father with scorn, and Lear begins to realise his mistake. But through the processes of tragic reckoning, Lear finds solace in recognising his own authentic self as an ageing man, rather than his former political identity as a powerful monarch. As noted by the program, it is“a domestic crisis wrapped in a political crisis inside an existential one”.

When Cordelia refuses to stroke her father's ego, the king misconstrues her honesty as treachery. Brett Boardman/Bell Shakespeare

But, of course, many things are realised far too late. With one of Shakespeare's most well-liked villains, Edmund the Bastard (Darius Williams), determining to turn everyone's lives upside down in his attempts to quash his legitimate brother Edgar (Alex King), the political mayhem spills out onto the naked moors and into the famous punishing storm of Shakespeare's play.

Force and clarity

Menzies is outstanding as a physically feeble yet emotionally volatile Lear. Janine Watson is superb in her role as Lear's best adviser, Kent, steadfast in loyalty, and often downplaying the tenor of her expressions without surrendering fervency or force.

Williams hits all the right notes as a salacious and manipulative Edmund. And Kahraman doubles very well as the Jester, robust yet constrained in chiding Lear, drawing laughter from the wit of Shakespeare's fool more than banking on showy spectacle (Aristotle would be proud!).

Menzies is outstanding as a physically feeble yet emotionally volatile Lear. Brett Boardman/Bell Shakespeare

Bailey and Schebesta give strong performances as the mature sisters who can be stern, yet sensual; scheming, yet vulnerable to Edmund's manipulations. And King as Edgar (and King of France) is always charismatic, but perhaps a touch too stylised for the erratic character of“Poor Tom”.

Overall, the cast delivers the lines with force and clarity, allowing the plot to shine and emphasising the juicy amount of familial insults in this play (some of Shakespeare's worst !).

This King Lear erupts splendidly in the confined space, though Aristotle might suggest Tregloan's monochrome charcoal costuming in the first half might dull the ability of first-timers to recognise character distinctions. In Aristotle's hierarchy, costumes might sit between plot and character. Although they are traditionally associated with character, the characters need to be recognised to follow the plot.

Although the intimate space probably determined the tableau staging of the play's dying moments, the final laments of Lear were heartrending, thus capping off an“enjoyable” experience of Shakespeare's woeful tragedy.

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