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Indigenous Lear mines modern-day issues

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A radical re-interpretation of King Lear that finds parallels between Shakespeare’s tragedy and Indigenous land issues in Australia will be one of the highlights of the 2014 Adelaide Festival.

Director Michael Kantor says The Shadow King, described as a “sprawling, blood-soaked tale” of two Aboriginal families in Australia’s remote north, stemmed from conversations taking place in Indigenous communities.

“Arguments about who has the right to make decisions about land, who should be negotiating with mining companies, what is our moral responsibility to our land …

“The themes just instantly spoke to me of Lear, because Lear is a man who divides his land and the way he gives it away causes great catastrophe in his family.”

He and co-creator Tom E. Lewis, who starred in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and plays Lear in The Shadow King, also found parallels in the themes of legitimacy and inheritance rights.

However, Kantor says “purists” expecting the Malthouse Theatre production to be a faithful rendition of the original play will be disappointed.

“We’ve used Shakespeare as a clothesline to peg our story onto.

“It should be seen as a distinct and radical interpretation of King Lear.”

At just 100 minutes long, the story is condensed and flavoured with Indigenous languages. It plays out on a set dominated by what looks like a large piece of mining machinery which eventually moves away, leaving raw red earth.

The Shadow King centres on two families: King Lear and his two daughters, torn apart by questions of land and who should inherit, and the Gloucester family, which is destroyed by questions of legitimacy. The only other character retained is the Fool.

“Lear has to re-connect with his land and ancestors,” Kantor says. “His madness is less expressed; we are less concerned with the traditional representation of Lear as a man on the verge of insanity, but rather one who has lost contact with his history.”

Introducing a “different type of poetry” through a mixture of languages – including Yumpla Tok, Gupapuyngu, Katherine Kriol and Baard, alongside English – was another way of setting the production apart from the original.

The title comes from a line in the original play which Kantor says resonated with the idea of an Indigenous Lear who was plagued by having one foot in the black man’s world and one in the white man’s world.

He and the production team consulted with Indigenous elders, and the all-Indigenous cast assumed responsibility for ensuring cultural protocols were followed in what the Adelaide Festival program describes as an “explosive Indigenous production”.

“When you deal with families in conflict, there’s violence, there’s sexual abuse – there’s all sorts of things taking place in these families,” Kantor says. “They are very brave Indigenous actors because they are willing to express on stage that it’s not all happy families in these communities.”

The Shadow King premiered to largely positive reviews last week during the Melbourne Festival, and Kantor says it will continue to evolve before it plays in Adelaide next year.

The Shadow King will play at Her Majesty’s Theatre from March 5-7 as part of the Adelaide Festival. The full festival program was launched last night at the Festival Theatre – read more about the line-up here.

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