It would be wrong, as well as sexist, to say that the wonder is that it was done at all. The trouble with this Melbourne Theatre Company production of Lear is not Robyn Nevin, and it should be possible for anyone who has no particular desire to see Shakespeare’s greatest role (or indeed any other male role) played by a woman to realise that she does everything she can in the face of all but insurmountable obstacles, the least of which is the cross-gender casting.
Taken in isolation — as, of course, it cannot be — this is a distinguished, not a great Lear. Better than the two Lears I have seen from John Bell (though I missed the one with Judy Davis as the Fool). Comparable, at least potentially, to the extent that one can judge, to the Derek Jacobi Lear directed by Michael Grandage at London’s Donmar and shown here in cinemas. And taken in isolation the characterisation, in terms of the cross-gender stakes, will bear comparison with Helen Mirren’s fair fist of a Prospera in Julie Taymor’s Tempest film or, indeed, to any of Ed Hall’s men playing women. If it’s not on a par — in potentia — to Cate Blanchett’s Richard II …well, Shakespeare’s first sketch of a player prince is easier to queen your way through. Alas, every unmistakable virtue of Robyn Nevin’s Queen Lear is swathed in the mists and fogs and nonsense of Rachel McDonald’s production, which may be the worst Lear ever to be mounted on a professional Australian stage.
We saw it on the first Saturday night, having missed the opening, a night of blizzardly wind and rain, travelling like poor wretches on public transport with little sense of hey-ho because the critics in the dailies had already denounced Queen Lear in a rare show of unanimity. Thursday night was the biggest night in the Australian theatrical calendar since Geoffrey Rush’s The Importance of Being Earnest, but by the time the first-night audience who had trooped to see the great lady of our theatre essay the supreme tragic role (as virtually none of her female peers had anywhere) emerged from the theatre, tickets for the rest of the season were being junked like Fairfax shares.
Rachel McDonald, the director of the Nevin Lear, persuaded her to take the role, but there her imagination seems to have dried. She uses the large space of the Sumner stage to its farthest verge with an effect of all-encompassing vacuity. As someone who is more or less addicted to the first couple of rows of front stalls I was appalled to discover — as my critical confrères must have been — that the effect from house seats in row E was of a production almost fantastically recessed, so that prime seats simulated the effect of poorish back stalls. It didn’t help that Niklas Pajanti’s lighting, while bearing a superficial resemblance to the kind of chiaroscuro you see in Des McAnuff productions, actually obscures expression in terribly unhelpful ways.
So too does the director at almost every point. The upshot is a production where quite skilled actors — Genevieve Picot as Goneril, Richard Piper as Gloucester — seem to wander through great tracts of dramatic emptiness. It should be said that David Paterson is a sprightly, not brilliant, Edmund, though Rohan Nichol as Edgar comes from some Antipodean lagoon of flat-voiced flat-footed ineptitude which Rachel McDonald has done nothing to redress.
Well, in fact she helps nobody. Nicholas Hammond flashes into disconcerting illumination speaking perfect RP as a Cornwall who is one part Jeeves to three parts camp SS officer: a sketch towards a characterisation that a director with any gifts should have been able to do something with.
But McDonald just can’t take a trick. In fact she seems to do nothing helpful for anyone. It is silly that Greg Stone is a wheelchaired Albany and seconds later a skullcapped Oswald, just as it’s absurd that Edmund fails to recognise an Edgar who has no mask in the prelude to one of the worst fight scenes ever staged.
It is worse still that in an inane piece of dramaturgy McDonald actually has the audacity to turn the Fool into the projections of Lear’s mind voiced by the three daughters whereas in fact he is a voice of irony and loyalty whose absence dislocates the play terribly.
Nor does it help that Alexandra Schepisi, whether as Cordelia or as a fragment of the Fool, sounds as if she has been nursed by dingoes. France and Burgundy and their suit for Cordelia have been eliminated so that the battle at the end makes little sense.
All of this is awful, but the terrible thing is that everyone in this production (from Robert Menzies’ mannered, angry Kent to Belinda McClory’s slinky North Shore Regan) seems to occupy some wasteland of solipsism in which they wander alone like drifting wreckage from Lear’s dementia.
Robyn Nevin deserved better than this and within the confines of this ruined hospice of theatrical imbecility she does well.
She seemed to me in the opening scene a bit too rounded and regina-like, but as the overwhelming pressure mounts the vowels get rougher, the voice at once deeper and more lacerated, as it should.
She is a tougher, blinder, more formidable Lear than Bell or Frank Gallacher. She has a deep streak of wounding meanness and a cavern of a capacity for suffering. ‘Blow you winds’ is an extraordinary test of a female voice and she manages it. She has moments of piercing insight in the sublime word salad of the hovel scene and there is a consistent toughness and intelligence and gulfs of depth in the face of every silly skirt and windmill of theatrical impedimenta this hopeless production puts in her path.
One of the great tests of a Lear is ‘When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter’ because it requires superlative character acting and earthiness as well as wisdom in the midst of nuttiness, and Robyn Nevin does it very well. In the ‘wheel of fire’ scene, the reconciliation with Cordelia, she is deeply poignant and brings tears to the eyes.
She is not on a par with McKellen but she is formidable, beyond the reckoning of most male Lears. It is a crying shame that she is traduced by a production like this.
Rachel McDonald did the Yvonne Kenny La voix humaine of which I have good but not very distinct memories and has mainly directed opera. Robyn Nevin would have been far better served doing Lear as a one-woman show with an expert director. That way we would not have this worthless whirligig distracting us from a singular and very brave performance.
Grit your teeth and see it for Robyn’s sake.
Queen Lear is at the Sumner Theatre until 18 August.Tags: iapps