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Review: Michael Hurst’s King Lear cannot stand the weight of its own creation

Kate Prior reviews King Lear, Auckland Theatre Company's Shakespearean production which was staged from 13 June - 9 July.

Review: Michael Hurst’s King Lear cannot stand the weight of its own creation

Oct 24, 2023 Theatre

In the final throes of Auckland Theatre Company’s King Lear, Albany (Fasitua Amosa) surveys the fatal remnants of the chaos that has ensued and speaks the last lines of the play: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. Interestingly, the lines are not usually given today to the higher-ranking Albany (to whom they are attributed in the earliest text we have) but to philosophical Edgar (as in the later First Folio). But whoever speaks, it’s a plea for honesty which reverses Lear’s appeal for flattery that triggers the play’s discord. New Zealand theatre often inspires a lot of ‘ought-to-say’ reviews. This is what one spectator feels.

The centrepiece of ATC’s 30th birthday year, this King Lear sells itself on Michael Hurst headlining and directing (alongside co-director Benjamin Kilby-Henson). The marketing uses the play’s likeness to HBO series Succession (or, more accurately, Succession’s likeness to the play) as a hook to get punters through the door. But the more compelling hook is the challenge this production lays down for its director/actor: is it possible to perform the title role in King Lear — one of the most complex and demanding of Shakespeare’s roles, one that asks a huge amount of any actor — and successfully direct the same show in a four-week rehearsal period? Leaving the theatre afterwards, the answer, to my mind, is no. One can try, but the task is superhuman. Something will be lost under the weight.

What feels lost in this production is cohesive performance direction: careful attention to the quality of listening throughout the ensemble and to performance dynamics, to ensure human connection is at the core. This simple connection is crucial to make sense of the play’s relationships, rituals and themes.

At the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Hurst and Kilby-Henson’s Lear is presented within stripped-back, stark-white traverse staging. One end of designer John Verryt’s traverse stage is lined with mirrors, underscoring the play’s themes of blindness and vanity as well as the opposites and doubles in its characters. The minimalist design means all focus is on performance. That’s perhaps a natural choice for a director who is also the headline actor, yet it’s an unforgiving one. In New Zealand, chances to practise playing Shakespeare are scarce, and for most of the ensemble, this production represents their first professional Shakespeare in many years, or ever. (It’s surprising how few actors are previous Pop-Up Globe company members, who have had recent practice. The fact that not one but two plum roles — Edmund and the Fool — are filled by English-trained and recently UK-based actors is ironic within a production that’s a celebration of a Tāmaki institution, Auckland Theatre Company, and its 30 years of existence.)

In Hurst and Kilby-Henson’s production, hearing performers listening to each other and to the text they’re speaking is rare. For an audience to understand Shakespeare’s text, the actor first needs to digest it for themselves. If the actor has brought their own intellect, body and breath to the text and connected with the actor (or audience) opposite them, we will hear the human impulse inside the verse, no matter the speed at which we’re taking it in.

Unfortunately, from many in the ensemble, iambic pentameter rolls out in impenetrable slabs, with little dynamic to aid comprehension. Many moments aren’t breathed in but churned through, and pace seems to be the name of the game (at 2.5 hours not counting the interval, it’s an extremely slimmed-down and pacy Lear). First draft ideas are enlarged and prioritised over listening, so that there are lots of character ideas being performed on stage but little space for actors to find truth by connecting with one another. Hurst himself is a rage-filled Lear from the jump. Vibrato thrumming, he leans heavily into the torment from the first few scenes, allowing little emotional runway on which to fall apart.

Careful attention to performance is not only the actor’s responsibility — it’s the director’s job to turn dials up or down. It’s confounding that performances across the ensemble haven’t been adjusted or balanced by the directing team. But how does a director guide and support actors while taking on an octopus of a role himself? And how do you direct the director?

Confusions in staging appear early. To help us feel the tragic fall of the play, Act 1 Scene 1 — in which Lear demands that each of his daughters declare how much they love him — must indicate hierarchy, order, grandiosity and ritual, all which is soon to be reversed. Yet in the staging of this scene, the hierarchy is confused. The daughters take a seat while the king stands; the youngest daughter, Cordelia (Hanah Tayeb), is seated at the front while her elder sisters Goneril (Andi Crown) and Regan (Jessie Lawrence) sit behind her. The text is spoken at such an unmodulated clip that there is no chance to indicate the courtly momentousness of the occasion and step us through its chaotic turn.

Without legible order and an extremity of hierarchy, the dark shock that Lear’s strange game injects into both the court and the family dynamic is lost, and this bleeds into performances. The scene becomes strangely pedestrian. Before and during their ensuing speeches, Goneril and Regan are not viscerally terrified by their dad’s behaviour. Even if the directorial or performance choice is to mask their feelings, their words come too easy. Regan’s loud “holy shit” after everyone has left then reads as a cheap laugh that feels unearned.

The depth of ancient ritual is not foreign to us — we are privileged to live in a land shaped by Māori tikanga and we’ve just watched a bonkers coronation. Correctly setting the axis of the first scene by observing its rituals and dynamics is absolutely crucial to feeling the weight of the tragedy. Without this, the orbital forces of the play collapse.

King Lear is a devastatingly sad play. In its essence, it’s a family drama about very simple human things. It’s about wanting validation and adoration so desperately that you misunderstand what love is. It’s about not being able to surrender control, admit your failings and let go of your remorse. There are scenes in the play that contain poetry and images of such deep human sadness that anyone who has been a parent or a child will be left bawling. It’s strange to sit through an entire production of King Lear and feel very little.

Directing an epic while performing its hulking role is a tempting challenge for any accomplished actor/director. But this production doesn’t feel generous to its audience or to its performers. Lear’s fatal flaw — an inability to relinquish power — rattles through its bones.

King Lear
13 June — 9 July

This story was published in Metro N°439.
Available here.


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