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Canberra Today 16°/18° | Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Karen takes the crown, as Horwood’s King Lear

Karen Vickery in the title role of King Lear… “We are finding new things in the text,” says director Joel Horwood. Photo: Jenny Wu

IT’S been open season on Shakespeare in Canberra this year, with quite a lineup of comic rip-offs, gender-bending interpretations and even a rock ‘n’ roll version of a history play, but now The Q’s Echo Theatre is embarking on the real thing – a full production of “King Lear”.

The story goes… the ageing Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters into three parts, a very bad idea, and violence ensues. Meantime, his former courtier the Duke of Gloucester has two sons, the compassionate Edgar and the bastard son Edmund, to deal with. 

Considered by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be all but unstageable and “the most painful” of Shakespeare’s plays, it vies with “Hamlet” to be considered the Bard’s master work.

Huge in scale and teetering on the brink of madness throughout, it is a work that only the most intrepid of directors would attempt.

Enter someone game enough, Joel Horwood, by day a staffer at The Q, but by night one of our most talented actors. 

Trained at the WA Academy of Performing Arts and now treading the boards, Horwood cut his teeth earlier in the year directing Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever” and now, in an inspiration all of his own, he has cast one of Canberra’s most powerful female actors Karen Vickery in the title role of King Lear.

Hang on? Shouldn’t that be “Queen Lear?” 

Well, not really, for as Horwood points out when we catch up: “I wanted people to know that it’s still the play, ‘King Lear’.” 

He is much assisted by the fact that Shakespeare never specifies a Mrs Lear, so it’s always been just Lear and his daughters and when the king curses his daughter Goneril with sterility, it’s much more telling coming from a woman.

“We are finding new things in the text,” Horwood enthuses.

“Lear” is my favourite,” Horwood tells me, “I first did it as an actor at Monash University, where I was miscast as Gloucester.

Although he disapproves of the 19th century habit of giving “King Lear” a happy ending, he does admit it’s quite a big risk for an inexperienced director. 

“I’m more experienced as an actor,” he continues, but I’ve assembled a pretty extraordinary cast.”

The design, he says, will not be “wacky and wild”, because his main imperative is telling the story, which he describes as “so profound, beautiful and tragic.”

“We wanted to set it in a timeless place” he explains, so there’ll be no prehistoric bearskins or a transition into, say, the 1960s.

“It’s about the dynamic of two families… to be sure, there is political strife around the family drama, but the play is not primarily about politics.” 

As for his star cast, Vickery leads as Lear alongside her real-life daughter, Natasha Vickery as Regan, Lainie Hart as Goneril, with Joshua Wiseman and Lewis McDonald, both Bristol Old Vic graduates, as Edgar and Edmund respectively.

Petronella van Tienen doubles as Cordelia and the Fool, Jim Adamik plays Albany, Christina Falsone plays Kent, Tom Cullen is Cornwall, Michael Sparks is Gloucester and Glenn Brighenti, Oswald, with Holly Ross playing a vast assortment of minor roles. 

“Six men and six women,” Horwood says with pride. 

The play holds endless fascination for him, partly for the way it veers between prose and poetry, sanity and madness, with Gloucester speaking mostly prose but the evil Edmund using verse. 

“It’s one of the longest plays by Shakespeare and I’ve cut it quite a bit, but carefully,” he says. 

Some logistical problems have emerged, as in Lear’s scene of grief over Cordelia, where he traditionally carries Cordelia’s body. If not physically possible for Vickery, they have two plans of action. 

As for the unbearable parts of the play, there certainly is a high body count at the end. 

There’s also the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out – he won’t give too much away there, but notes, “sight is such a big theme in the work.” The question of sight and blindness runs throughout this play as much as in ‘Oedipus Rex’.”

“See better, Lear,” Kent advises Lear early in the action. 

And if Lear had taken that advice – well, there wouldn’t be a play.

“King Lear”, at The Q, Queanbeyan, November 29- December 3. 

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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