Review :: The Shadow King – Sydney Festival

January 26th 2014

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To take a Shakespearean tragedy and transform it into a contemporary story about indigenous Australia is a pretty big feat, but one that co-creators Tom E. Lewis and Michael Kantor have nailed.

The Shadow King transports the story of King Lear, a tale of greed, corruption, betrayal and land ownership, to the Northern Territory, where mining has divided communities and the land. Re-told through a combination of English, Kriol and the performers’ own languages, the adaptation becomes a story in its own right, taking complete ownership of Shakespeare’s original script.

The industrial aesthetic of Carriageworks, with its floor entirely covered in red dirt, was the perfect backdrop for a stunning set,  constructed around a centrepiece of a dominating mining truck. As the characters descend further into mistrust, deception and each meet their tragic ends, the audience can’t escape the reference to the integral role that the mining industry has played in the breaking down of indigenous communities over divisions of wealth and the land.

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Another interesting artistic choice was the use of film, projected as a backdrop to the set and at times being used to tell parts of the story. The moving set transformed the traditional space of the theatre and created an almost jarring viewing experience during points of tension in the plot, especially in a haunting scene where we watch as Lear (played by Lewis), descending into madness, is hunted through the desert at night by a four-wheel-drive.

“Lear of all stories is about land, land ownership and the folly of believing you can own the land.” – Michael Kantor (Director of The Shadow King)

The cast includes some of our best Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island actors, including Jada Alberts, Selwyn Burns, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Damion Hunter, Kamahi Djordon King and Natasha Wanganeen. Each actor brings a different kind of depth to the characters they play, resulting in a production that balances light-hearted comedy with the serious message,  perfectly complimented by a score of live music by Bart Willoughby (Yothu Yindi).

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In a mini-documentary about the making of The Shadow King, Lewis says, ‘Dreamtime stories and Shakespeare go together and what swims in themiddle of these things – if I separate the paradigms – in the middle is brutality.’  The story is definitely brutal, but sold out shows around the country proves that The Shadow King is up there with the best and most important in Australian theatre this year

Follow our rolling coverage of Sydney Festival 2014 here



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