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Helen Buday, Colin Moody, Geoffrey Rush, Robyn Nevin and Nick Masters. All images: Heidrun Löhr.

THEATRE: 02 DECEMBER 2015

By SANDRA BOWDEN

King Lear, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Neil Armfield

Sydney Theatre Company | Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 9 January

For a production as well known as King Lear, and a creative team well known for innovation, it comes as no surprise that there are some surprising moments in Sydney Theatre Company’s current version of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays.

Without giving anything away, do make sure you arrive on time. Missing the first few minutes would be a tragedy in itself.

Neil Armfield brings his lifetime of experience into directing a personally and professionally important production. Steering away from majestic pomp, this is indeed Lear stripped bare, a powerful man brought to his knees by his own misguided beliefs.

For those who had the privilege of seeing 2009’s The War of the Roses, set designer Robert Cousin’s astounding use of the Main Stage is likely etched in the memory — the curtain rising on Cate Blanchett surrounded by cascades of golden glitter was truly gasp-worthy. While there aren’t any moments to quite match that, Cousins’ vision creates two very distinct and striking worlds.

The first: a vast, black space, with just a bit of that glitter, lit by Nick Schlieper to utilise the cast’s shadows as an eerie and effective backdrop. The second: a luminous, slightly disconcerting white emptiness.

Having been cast as The Fool twice before, Geoffrey Rush takes on Lear’s crown with a clown’s sensibility for pathos. Transitioning from tuxedo-clad monarch to bedraggled and despairing exile, it is always striking — and, in Rush’s hands, utterly compelling — to witness the rapidity of Lear’s descent.

We know Lear has it coming when, deciding it is time to abdicate, he demands his daughters Goneril (Helen Buday), Regan (Helen Thomson) and Cordelia (Eryn Jean Norvill) publicly proclaim their love for him. While Goneril and Regan wax lyrical, Cordelia refuses to enter into this conceit and is banished.

Betrayals abound as Goneril and Regan turn out to be not quite as loving as they profess. Meanwhile Edmund (a deliciously vicious Meyne Wyatt) deceives his father, the Earl of Gloucester (Max Cullen), resulting in Gloucester disinheriting his other son Edgar (Mark Leonard Winter), who is forced to go into hiding and disguise himself as an insane beggar.

The now-powerless Lear, accompanied by his faithful Fool (Robin Nevin) and Earl of Kent (the excellent Jacek Koman) strikes out into a literal and metaphorical storm. Eventually he is reconciled with Cordelia, but joy is short-lived.

Armfield’s cast may boast the main drawcard in Oscar-winning Rush, but the entire ensemble is drawcard-worthy. Winter literally throws himself into the role of Poor Tom, naked and writhing on the ground while the magnificent storm rages around him.

Nevin’s Fool is droll, dry, and fully Aussie. For the most part this works very well —but the relationship between Lear and his Fool remained somewhat disconnected. The drum effect for Nevin’s wisecracks is entertaining, if eventually distracting.

Thomson and Buday appear to relish their wicked sister roles and are a delight to watch. Norvill’s Cordelia balances this with steadfast sincerity.

King Lear is not easy viewing in many ways. It is long, and complex in both plot and language. Most of all, however, it is an uncomfortable reminder of our own humanity and vulnerability.

Geoffrey Rush.

Max Cullen, Mark Leonard Winter and Geoffrey Rush.