Time Out speaks with Tom E Lewis about his starring role in a free adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear
Preparing for the role of King Lear, Tom E Lewis, the actor and Murrungun man made famous by his role in Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, has discovered inspiration and motivation in his own family traditions and in the rich storytelling tradition of Dreamtime lore.
"It's personal," he explains, relaxing at his home on the outskirts of Katherine, having just returned from a music festival in Maningrida, over 559 kilometres away. "You have to articulate your own feelings and compare them to the old stories."
In the figure of Lear, one of the great tragic roles, if not the greatest, in the world canon, Lewis sees echoes of his own grandfather and his relationship with the land.
"We weren't kings, but we were king of our world," he says. "They had the songs and dances, and the ceremonies for the church, which is the country. Similar stories there, with daughters getting land and all of that sort of thing. My grandfather had given my mother this country."
He insists that the Dreamtime and the myths and stories which Shakespeare used as inspiration have much in common.
"If a lot of people want to know about the Dreamtime they should read more Shakespeare," he laughs, "because it's all in there. Everything is there, mucka!"
But whatever the two traditions share, this new production, directed by former Malthouse artistic director Michael Kantor, and performed in a kind of ancient-Creole-made-new by an Indigenous cast hailing from all quarters of Australia, is going to look very different.
"If I was to do just Lear it would throw people off," explains Lewis, "because I'm not white. But this is the Shadow King, and the Shadow King, he can do anything. It's not based on black or white, it's based on telling the stories that suit the country."
But Lewis rejects the suggestion that this is only a story of Indigenous dispossession.
"It's too easy," he says. "We lose country, yeah? But here's the tricky one. How is the whitefella gonna feel when he loses it? You gonna feel the same way as me. And you will understand then, maybe, why we're losing our hopes and stuff."
Far from hopeless, however, Lewis hopes the show will be something joyous, a gift from Katherine to Melbourne.
"Melbourne taught me a lot of things," he says. " It's given me my art world and career and that, and this is my project to say, 'Thank you, you lot. You've got me up this far and who knows where I'm going anywhere after that.'"