Theatre review: King Lear, Neilson Nutshell, Pier 2/3

Bell Shakespeare takes a minimalist approach to 'King Lear' in its first production of the play since 2010 – with mixed results. 
A man with a salt and pepper beard is standing to one side and looking into the distance. He is wearing a white tunic and a crown made of flowers and leaves.

When it comes to theatrical productions, if not life in general, there’s something to be said for the principle of “less is more”. In the theatre, simplicity can make a text shine. It can sharpen the focus on the performances. 

But sometimes, less really is less. 

This is arguably the case in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of King Lear, a sparse, stripped-back rendering of the 17th century play based on the mythological Leir of Britain. 

Presented in the round in the intimate Neilson Nutshell, this production sees the actors mainly wearing theatre blacks, as though in rehearsal mode (although it should be noted, they’re very well-tailored blacks).

In terms of set, it’s not quite a black box production, but it’s only a step or two away, costume and set designer Anna Tregloan opting for a brassy stage floor with a black circle in the centre. 

From the celling hangs a simple model evoking celestial bodies. 

At no point is there any concession to scenery or even the basic confines of a room. 

This desire to strip things right back is understandable in a dense, lengthy work with 14 characters. One can see the temptation to rein things in. 

Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t elevate the story or performances. 

On the contrary, in a play with multiple characters constantly marching on and off stage, it’s essential that each character has a strong, recognisable identity. When the characters look much the same as each other, the audience can quickly become confused – especially when several actors play more than one role, as they do here. 

This point is especially salient when a play is in the round, meaning actors have their backs to half the audience at any given time. 

While the above scenario seems at odds with Bell Shakespeare’s stated aim of making the Bard more accessible, it’s partly redeemed by the performances in this production, directed by Peter Evans. 

Esteemed Australian actor Robert Menzies, the eponymously named grandson of the former Prime Minister, plays a strong Lear. His characterisation of a man who, upon entering old age, seeks to divide his assets and power between his children, is convincing; his depiction of physical decline and the onset of dementia is moving. 

Generally, though, the performances – while perfectly adequate and serviceable – aren’t particularly memorable.

A notable exception is Melissa Kahraman, who is excellent in her portrayal of Lear’s daughter Cordelia. Kahraman plays two roles in this production – she also puts in a good showing as the Fool. (The Fool, incidentally, is one of the few characters to have a singular, distinctive costume.) 

When Menzies and Kahraman work together, as in Cordelia’s death scene, the effect is compelling.  

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Darius Williams as Edmund is another standout. His physicality is especially notable; Williams acts with his entire body. He has a prodigious stage presence, especially for someone so young, and displays a strong command of the role at all times.

James Lugton’s acting chops are evident in his portrayal of Gloucester, especially when said character is blinded by Cornwall (Michael Wahr). 

Movement, fight and intimacy director Nigel Poulton deserves kudos for the expertly choregraphed fight scenes, while lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne and composer/sound designer Max Lyandvert excel in their contributions, particularly during the portentous thunderstorm in act three, scene two. 

Overall, this is a competent production. It bears the hallmarks of highly talented professionals with considerable skills in their fields. But for such an epic tale, regularly hailed as one of the greatest literary works in the English language, Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear is too minimalist, modest and restrained to really hit the mark.

King Lear by William Shakespeare
Interpreted by Bell Shakespeare

Director: Peter Evans
Associate Director: Tiffany Wong
Set and Costume Designer: Anna Tregloan
Lighting Designer: Benjamin Cisterne
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert

Voice Director: Jack Starkey-Gill
Movement, Fight and Intimacy Director: Nigel Poulton
Dramaturg: James Evans
Cast: Robert Menzies, Tamara Lee Bailey, Shameer Birges, Jeremi Campese, Melissa Kahraman, Alex King, James Lugton, Lizzie Schebesta, Michael Wahr, Janine Watson, Darius Williams, Brittany Santariga (ensemble/understudy), James Thomasson (ensemble/understudy)

Tickets: $37-$110

King Lear will be performed at the Neilson Nutshell, Pier 2/3, Dawes Point NSW until 20 July 2024 and at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne from 25 July to 11 August 2024. 

Peter Hackney is an Australian-Montenegrin writer and editor who lives on Dharug and Gundungurra land in Western Sydney - home to one of Australia’s most diverse and dynamic arts scenes. He has a penchant for Australian theatre but is a lover of the arts in all its forms. A keen ‘Indonesianist’, Peter is a frequent traveller to our northern neighbour and an advanced student of Bahasa Indonesia. Muck Rack: