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Robyn Nevin dons the royal crown in a fascinating turn as Queen Lear for the MTC

In Lear, Shakespeare's most ambitious work, and perhaps the most ambitious work of theatre in the western canon, the abyss between the-play-in-the-mind and the-play-on-the-stage is all but unbridgeable.

When one reads the play, the vision of an ideal Lear seems almost immediately to conjure itself before the mind's eye. Images and moods and thoughts combine in a terrifyingly comprehensive mental cinema, moved by the smooth authority of the verse, the super-clarity of characterisation, the always surprising and impressive images, the complexity and multiplicity of the personal and political relations, and the suggestion beneath it all of a profound metaphysics.

Lear is most wonderful to read.

Indeed, so comprehensive is the vision that we are all too apt to privilege it, to give our own feeling for the play the kind of prescriptive pre-eminence that we, in our modern liberality of artistic spirit, would never dream of imposing on other plays.

This is why Lear in performance often feels like a personal insult, especially live performance, where the play is compromised for the realities of the physical stage and coloured with the alien tints of someone else's imagination. "Tis worse than murther to do upon respect such violent outrage," cries the anguished audient, finding yet again that their vision has been sullied by that of another.

Even if, after years of disappointment, we have arrived at point a critical reconciliation and no longer expect sapphires in the mud, we still experience a twinge of almost nostalgic disappointment as we journey home from the theatre, sighing for what can never be. Perhaps only those who have never read the play are capable of truly enjoying Lear on stage. But who could ever wish to un-read Lear?

Of course, it does not follow that simply because Lear, more than any other work, makes us sensitive to the limits of theatre that we should then treat every failed Lear equally, with either melancholy shrugs from the world-weary or howls from the jealous. Some productions are spectacularly rich and controversial failures, like Peter Brook's oft-cited film version, or, in a completely different register, Jean-Luc Godard's bewildering disassembly. Others are merely bland recitations, such as the RSC version with Ian McKellen that toured here in 2007. Others again are laughable silliness, like Simon Phillips' 2005 production.

Rachel McDonald's production is by no means one of the great failures. She lacks the imaginative confidence necessary to fail on a scale adequate to the playwright's own staggering self-confidence. We don't find here the kind of total aesthetic essay which distinguishes, for instance, Brook or Godard. Still, this is possibly the best, or at least most interesting, live production of Lear we've seen in Melbourne going back at least a decade. It's a production offering some fascinating and surprising insights into the text, and is highly recommended, despite its serious short-comings.

MTC co-artistic director Robyn Nevin has assumed the role of Lear, and together with director Rachel McDonald, they've chosen to alter the script to reflect the gender-swap. It is now an aging matriarch, not patriarch, who in a fit of senile pique disinherits her favourite daughter, precipitating a fall into madness.

Despite the director's protestations, this decision does introduce something very much novel next to what Shakespeare wrote. The little textual changes, pronoun swaps and more, are scattered like dark tacks across the script. We don't notice most of them, but every now and then something sharp brings us up short. But not always in a painful way. Some times the familiar text is even refreshed. In Gloucester's speech in act I scene 2, for instance, the line altered to "there's mother against child" actually has a more powerful ring to it than "father against child", particularly as it is more neatly antithetical to the earlier "son against father", giving the relationship between the Gloucester-Edmund subplot and the central Lear-Cordelia story a more eerie symmetry.

It makes one wonder what Lear might have looked like if Shakespeare had abandoned the historical model of old King Lear and written his tragic monarch as a woman. But, of course, he didn't, and wishing won't make it so. Though Nevin's performance is consistent and often moving, if perhaps a little too much given to reeling and rocking, as a queen rather than a king she is too often out of phase, fully connecting with the script only at intervals. For example, when Lear boldly throws off her ungrateful daughters and ventures into the storm "contending with the fretful elements", McDonald's production becomes a travesty. Literally, a travesty. Queen Lear is the wrong gender for what is really the rash plunge of a quixotic knight, an essentially masculine gesture. The power of the whole storm scene, perhaps the play's most famous scene, is thus undercut.

But although McDonald is probably wrong when she says "Lear's gender is almost irrelevant", she might have a point in as much as Lear's sex is largely irrelevant: sexless and senile, stumbling over the heath, Lear could be either male or female, she would still be neither. Sex, indeed, seems to have everywhere been excerpted from this production, and the intricacies of court politics, explicitly linked to sex by Shakespeare, has also disappeared. Thus, Cordelia's wooer-king, of France, is removed entirely, while Edmund's ambitious sensuousness is greatly reduced, craftily hidden away behind David Paterson's smooth manners.

Instead, we get a tragedy that is principally domestic. Shakespeare's Lear is obviously built on a dramatic base of family conflict, but the injection of the new maternal element amplifies it rather affectingly. The scenes between Lear and her daughters, particularly Regan (Belinda McClory) and Goneril (Genevieve Picot), are deepened considerably. The evil sisters become more sympathetic when considered in the light of maternal oppression. Instead of being cast as supernaturally malicious, sexed-up to monstrous effect as they so often are, the image, especially with Goneril, is more that of a victim, hurting, twisted up and made cold by years of emotional blackmail. The bitter love between Lear and her daughters here has a very contemporary feel that should resonate with many in the audience.

Similarly, there is a new and intriguing maternal aspect introduced between Lear and her loyal servants Kent (Robert Menzies) and Gloucester (Richard Piper). The scene where Gloucester, in shock after his "fall" from the cliffs of Dover, is taken in Lear's lap, just as a mother comforts her child, is a particularly touching one.

Many will no doubt be sorry that this domestication requires a diminishment Edmund's role, a charismatic psychopath much-loved by audiences, but this seems necessary to facilitate a neater integration of the Gloucester-Edmund subplot, Lear and Gloucester meeting in this production on more familial ground, almost as two single parents, vexed by their wilful children.

Most of the issues above are more like points of interest than deficiencies, and therefore welcome. Some of the other aesthetic and structural problems, however, are less so.

The deployment of the fool is particularly unsatisfactory. McDonald has plumped for the fool-as-imaginary-figment solution in placing what is, admittedly, a fiendishly difficult character. All very well, but she fails to thoroughly support this decision, and Alexandra Schepisi ends up being quite lost behind her more formidable colleagues.

The set and costume, designed with Tracy Grant Lord, are also worryingly confused. To take one example, the set features long, golden chains which hang very prettily from high above (pictured). Perhaps they are a reference to the seventeenth-century trope of golden fetters? The idea is that courtiers were given gold chains as a reward for loyalty by their lord, advertising both their rank and their servitude. It's an image once or twice used by Shakespeare; however, the bonds described in McDonald's more domestic interpretation are not at all the golden chains of political loyalty, but are more instinctive, primal bonds, such as between mother and daughter, or father and son. The chains, then, being symbolically extraneous, are left hanging, so to speak, and do little more than get in the way.

This is a production that will divide audiences, Though the performances of Robert Menzies, Greg Stone and Genevieve Picot, at least, should draw universal praise, as should the fine sound design of Iain Grandage. Perhaps Lear is one of those plays that can only ever divide. Division is, after all, the soul of this play, its dramatic mechanism. But it is a production that will divide not between the lovers and the haters, but between the haters and the reconciled, those who have given up expecting a realisation of their own personal Lear but still feel drawn to sift the wreckage of the interpretations of others, finding satisfaction with the unusual fragments therein.

Alexandra Schepisi on Queen Lear

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By Andrew Fuhrmann   |   Photos by Jeff Busby

Queen Lear details

140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank 3006

Telephone 03 8688 0800

Price $33.00 to $99.00

Date 07 Jul 2012-18 Aug 2012

Open Mon-Tue 6.30pm; Wed-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Wed 25 Jul 1pm & 8pm; Sat 28 Jul 8pm

Director: Rachel McDonald

Cast: Robyn Nevin, Rohan Nicol, Genevieve Picot, Alexandra Schepisi, Robert Menzies, Belinda McClory, Richard Piper, Greg Stone, Nicholas Hammond

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