A THICK layer of red dirt covers the vast stage floor of the Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre. To the right, an intimate group of three indigenous actors sit on a blanket chatting quietly as the audience files past to their seats.
The actors run their fingers through the red dirt and leave traces of their being, as their people have done for generations. This is The Shadow King – a masterful and contemporary indigenous adaption of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which made its world premier at the Melbourne Festival.
As the play begins, the group of three are revealed as Lear’s daughter Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick), who flips through the pages of a small red book, Gloucester (Frances Djulibin) and the fool and narrator (Kamahi King). It would be a peaceful scene if it wasn’t for the looming set that waits menacingly in the background.
To the left and in the half light, indigenous musicians sit at their instruments and play up-tempo music, singing spiritual songs of country. Their kit of drums, keyboard, electric guitar, didgeridoo and percussion sticks form the soundtrack to The Shadow King. They are Lear’s loyal band of men, a “humbugging mob” derided by two of Lear’s daughters.
Co-created by former Malthouse Theatre artistic director Michael Kantor and actor Tom E. Lewis, The Shadow King tells the story of two indigenous families torn apart by folly and greed over wealth from mining royalties and issues of land ownership.
“From the outset we knew that we wanted Shakespeare’s structure, but we wanted to find our way of telling that story and making sure the story felt resonant and powerful and yet still poetic in this new setting,” explains Kantor.
King Lear’s great folly is to ask his daughters, Goneril (Jada Alberts), Regan (Natasha Wanganeen) and Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick) to profess their love for him to prove how worthy they are of inheriting his land.
In this adaptation, Gloucester is a gentle but strong woman played by Frances Djulibin (Ten Canoes) who nurses a woven dilly bag as it hangs around her neck. It represents the community’s traditional songlines and is a symbol of great cultural significance.
“I would not have a man touching the dilly bag for no reason,” Lewis says. “The woman is the law of the land. We call her mother earth…we got very lucky,” he says of Djulibin. “In the rehearsal room we found out how lucky we were.”
As an elder of her community in Ramingining, Djulibin speaks in both her native tongue and English throughout the play and sought approval from other elders on aspects of indigenous cultural representation in The Shadow King.
“There was a lot of consultation that had to go back to those communities to make sure that everyone was comfortable,” Kantor says referring to the dilly bag and other representations of language and culture. “So it wasn’t just about the text. It was about being careful about cultural appropriation.”
Kamahi King shines as the fool in The Shadow King, in a performance that is finely attuned for each scene. A native Kriol speaker from Katherine, he performs in Kriol more than the other actors in the ensemble. “I had originally had in mind a much older fool, a wiser fool,” Kantor says. “But once Kamahi arrived I thought, ‘that’s it’ and is a far more exciting option really.”
This is a multi-layered drama where characters are transformed by raw emotion. Themes of love, greed, deceit, sorrow, pain, jealousy, lust, innocence and land ownership are played out against the ancient outback that is witness to all and which remains long after all have passed. Video of houses in Katherine and the cliffs along Katherine Gorge projected onto a large screen carry the audience into this vast landscape.
As in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund (Jimi Bani) harbours resentment towards his mother and his legitimate and trusting brother Edgar (Damion Hunter). Edgar flees when he is framed for a hideous crime, leaving Edmund to inherit the land. While Edgar looks to his culture and spirit for safety, Edmund denies his and is transformed into a horrifying brute. Both Bani and Hunter give stunning performances that reveal the nature of their characters. They are tall and solidly built men and use their physicality without a hint of self-consciousness.
Throughout the play the imposing set suggests a constant sense of foreboding as it rolls backwards and forwards on tracks and rotates right and left like a massive army tank. Its headlights blast the audience as it advances, moving in and out of the shadows, forward and back.
“We call it Gina,” Kantor says of the set. “We wanted to find a central metaphor for what we felt our production was talking about. Do we have the moral right to dig up the earth to expose and uncover the ancestors and the histories that come with that?” he says. “There is little mention of mining in the production but it haunts the production.”
The four year collaboration between Kantor and Lewis is as epic as the play itself.
A discussion between Kantor and Marion Potts, the current artistic director of the Malthouse Theatre, about the relevance of performing Shakespeare in Australia prompted a discussion about the great tragedy of King Lear.
“I mentioned the idea that maybe King Lear is the great play about land and accordingly maybe it has a resonance inside Australia,” he says. “From the outset, we both believed it should be an indigenous King Lear. That bubbled away until I discovered Tom E. Lewis had played Othello.”
When Kantor first visited Lewis at his home in Katherine in Australia’s far north, and handed him a tin theatre crown, Lewis sensed a powerful parallel with an image of a white man passing a paint brush to indigenous artist Albert Namatjira years before.
“The moment they clasped that paint brush together is a great metaphor in the country’s history and I live by that notion,” he says.
Lewis embodies the indigenous culture of spirit, land and learning. He has straddled indigenous culture and the white man’s world since childhood and has learnt to trust the opportunities fate has brought him. As a child, he was taught how to run generators and bores by “a beautiful motor mechanic,” a man who, Lewis says, was like a father and sent him to Melbourne to get a trade certificate.
Fate played another card the day Lewis was due to return to Darwin, in the form of a chance meeting with Australian film director Fred Schepisi and his wife.
“In 1977 when the fog in Melbourne delayed all the planes at the airport it stopped the Schepisis from going to Perth for a film call The Devils Playground. And I desperately wanted to go back to Darwin,” Lewis explains. “They spotted me [at the airport] and came over and said, like Michael with the crown, ‘we want you to act in our movie for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’.”
“What I’ve learnt since Jimmie has paved my roads to things that I never thought I would do,” he says. “It’s [been] an educational trip and a half and a good lesson.”
Lewis is a charismatic actor and musician who worked as a bricklayer and stockman in his younger years and performs in theatre and film. He brings such an intensity and authenticity to Lear that it is impossible to imagine another actor in the role. But the overriding sense he leaves you with is a sincere belief in spirituality and fate.
The Shadow King will play at the Sydney Festival, Perth Festival, Adelaide Festival and Brisbane Festival in 2014.
Michael Kantor and Tom E. Lewis appeared at Melbourne Festival’s Artists in Conversation lunchtime series.