When theatre director Michael Kantor met Indigenous performer Tom E. Lewis in Katherine, Lewis explained the problems facing his community. There were arguments over land and mining royalties, families being torn up by jealousy and the constant tension between traditional ways and young ideas – “it’s a tragedy, just like that King Lear story of yours” he remarked. Thus an idea was born, for an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s classic tales that would interrogate modern Indigenous experience, Kantor would direct and Lewis would take the title role. It’s no small task and The Shadow King is no small production.
The set design is so large and imposing, it’s no surprise to open the program and discover it is the work of three designers – Paul Jackson, David Miller and Kantor himself. The stage is covered deep in red sand and demanding your attention in the centre is a massive metal creation reminiscent of the road trains and mining trucks that dot the Northern Territory landscape. The structure advances and revolves in the course of the work becoming the stage-upon-a-stage from which Lear descends as he cedes his power and drifts into madness.
The well-known text has been rendered here in a multiplicity of languages, moving freely from English to Kriol to traditional languages. The company worked together to take Shakespeare’s poetry and put it in their own words and in doing so have tightened up the epic which has been known to last over three hours in performance. This is a 90-minute affair that focuses in on Lear’s madness whilst also bringing Edmund’s sub-plot to the fore.
The match-up of Lear and local issues works well for the most part. The desire for kingdom is replaced simply with the desire for land ownership. Lear wanders not into the wilderness but the desert. Goneril’s husband is not a moraliser who seeks to avert her plans but rather is absent, in gaol. However there are still elements of the plot that jar in this new context: Lear is after all a king, and this notion seems persistently out of place; it sometimes feels like epic nature of the original is pulling against the attempt to domesticate its narrative.
Whilst gorgeous projections of various Northern Territory environments give an idea of context it is the music that truly sets the scene. Under the direction of John Rodgers, the band of Indigenous music legends Selwyn Burns, Bart Willoughby and Djakapurra Munyarryun welcome the audience as they enter and then lead us through the landscape as the show continues. Some of Lear’s most compelling moments are when he’s singing with the band and the whole room comes to life.
Lewis has thrown himself entirely into his performance and it’s obvious he’s relishing every moment. He plays Lear with passion whether he’s breathing fire and brimstone when his daughters turn their backs or crooning mad platitudes when he sees the error of his ways.
However it is Jimi Bani as Edmund and Jada Alberts as Goneril who steal the show. The stage seems to teem with energy whenever Bani runs on dripping in charisma and declaring vengeance on the world for its wrongs to him whilst Alberts brings real heart to a role that can so easily be disregarded as that of a ruthless, uncaring woman. Her story becomes a focal point for many of the show’s themes: the clash of new thinking with traditional values, the economic problems her people face and a desire to escape the fighting.
More: Time Out talks to Tom E. Lewis about The Shadow King