The Morning After - The Shadow King
From the seeds of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear, emerges an explosive Indigenous reinterpretation – the tale of a community divided by greed, pride and ambition.
One of Shakespeare’s most powerful works, King Lear is an unmatched epic of kinship, country, justice and despair. Now in the hands of director Michael Kantor and co-creator Tom E. Lewis – who also takes the title role – this timeless tragedy speaks to the tangled legacy of Indigenous Australia.
A powerful melding of Shakespearian pathos with Aboriginal language, music and dance, The Shadow King recasts King Lear as a sprawling, blood-soaked tale of two Indigenous families in Australia’s north, weaving an incendiary parable that hums with the dark echoes of our nation’s history, probing at our understanding of kinship, land and belonging.
Bringing together some of the brightest lights of Indigenous theatre, film and music, including Tom E. Lewis (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), Jimi Bani (Mabo) and the music talents of Bart Willoughby, The Shadow King is performance at its most vital and immediate.
For more information about this show, visit the Melbourne Festival website.
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The Morning After: The Shadow King. Our post-mortem discussion panel featuring writers Shane Maloney and Melissa Lucashenko, with host Simon Abrahams.
Watch the video trailer for The Shadow King.
‘King Lear Through the Palimpsest’: On The Shadow King
By Chloe Hooper
‘We’re here to tell you one of your Dreamtime stories and make it one of ours,’ announces the Fool at the beginning of The Shadow King, an Aboriginal reworking of King Lear, co-created by director Michael Kantor and screen legend Tom E. Lewis. Indigenous Australia’s epic acquaintance with tragedy means dragging the play into the 21st-century Kimberley makes for a sharp fit. The Shadow King captures the bitterness of family and clan disputes around land and power, reinvigorating Shakespeare’s examination of the struggle between tradition and modernity.
On a morphing stage of red dirt and rust framed by a film screen, we open with the aging Lear (Lewis) cajoling his three daughters to profess their love for him. After Cordelia’s banishment, neither sweet-talking sister is played as a pure villain. Barefoot Regan — her husband in jail — sits smoking on the dark steps outside her house, while with film projection, the shadows of two small children appear at the screen door. She’s just sent away her drunken father and his entourage of knights, turned here into humbugging deadbeats, who she can’t allow inside her house. One senses the mix of claustrophobia and agoraphobia in outback life, and the role of women in holding things together.
Enter Edmund, in an electrifying performance by Jimi Bani, whose seductive entreaties that ‘you and I should be living like kings and queens, not on handouts’ hits straight home.
The videography seamlessly counter-poses the banal — a grimy line of chairs in a community hall, the detritus outside run down houses — and the sublime grandeur of the surrounding landscape. (Watching Tom E. Lewis’s ravaged, bleary face on screen as the hunted Lear is also strangely poignant, recalling both his performance as a 19-year-old in the title role of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, and the political distance we haven’t travelled in the following nearly 40 years.)
Curiously, the swirl of traditional and Kriol language, both spoken and sung, sets an average audience the same interpretive task as Shakespearean English: we’re so near and yet so far away. But an inclusive dark humour runs all the way through this production and it’s a pleasure re-reading King Lear through the palimpsest: Cordelia and Lear in a shoddy bush jail as blackfellas obviously carries far darker allusions. The fool (played in a brilliant piece of casting by the visual artist and drag star Kamahi Djordon King) dies but, in keeping with Indigenous views of the dead, his spirit guides us through to the conclusion of the play.
As the body count builds in the final scene of any Shakespearean tragedy, one always hears the creaking of suspended disbelief about to crash. But The Shadow King’s carnage does reflect the violence in dysfunctional communities, and the image of Frances Djulibing as the grieving Gloucester, folding up her body like a seed returning to the earth, feels too true.
‘What Kind of Lear Is This?’: On The Shadow King
By Malcolm Knox
When do you come out of King Lear with a smile on your face? The corpse-strewn stage is soaked with blood; the king’s mad raving still echoes; so why is everyone around me grinning and laughing? I am smiling myself. What kind of Lear is this?
The no-brainer contemporary Australian Lear, generations contesting mineral spoils, oozing filial ingratitude and chicanery, might be the House of Hancock; but of course the other side, the destructive impact of mining royalties and land deals on indigenous families, is far more apposite, both to a greater number of people and to the thrust of Shakespeare’s original. Like every good idea, adapting Lear to an Aboriginal setting seems overpoweringly right and logical and obvious, once it has been done.
Staged on the bonnet of a road train, on a red dirt-covered floor, with natural and domestic settings in remote Australia projected onto a screen behind the players, The Shadow King firmly establishes its ground, even if it is that land which is at contest. Bart Willoughby’s three-piece musical accompaniment adds to the flavouring, and the band members play a double role, as Lear’s disreputable mob who Goneril uses as the pretext to kick him out of her house. The band, Lear (Tom E. Lewis) and Lear’s fool (Kamahi Djordon King) form together to play the mediating role between drama and audience, appealing for sympathy, charming and tweaking while inevitably heading for their doom.
It isn’t the road train but the ambitions of Edmund that will run them down. Here it’s best to elaborate on the differences between The Shadow King and Lear, because those differences and excisions tell the story themselves. Edmund (Jimi Bani), not Lear, occupies the centre of dramatic gravity. The Euro-politics of the original are cut: no King of France, no Albany or Cornwall, no Kent. The drama, then, is strictly domestic. Edmund is the manipulator of ‘Gonorrheal’ (Jada Alberts) and Regan (Natasha Wanganeen), whose characters are softened by their own trials: Goneril is a single mother of five, their father in jail, while Regan is pregnant with Edmund’s child. Edmund’s megalomania eventually extends to wanting both sisters, with predictable results. Women in this community are re-cast as only acting badly out of their own unhappiness.
The other key difference is the transformation of Gloucester into Edmund’s mother (Frances Djulibing), the spirit woman whose blinding carries a heavy curse that has parallels that leap back behind Shakespeare’s version to the Celtic story upon which it was based. This pre-modern, pre-English undercurrent lurks beneath what has always been a pagan rather than Christian story, and in The Shadow King it bursts to the surface in the Yolgnu Marta and Kriol language variations that surge in and out of the script. Like the music, these incursions are exhilarating, and break the play out of its Shakespearean cell into something more elemental and, well, indigenous. Lear’s final descent into a mad dance, sung by Lewis in his Katherine Kriol, is a high point for this breakout. I found myself wondering how it would have been like if the whole play had been taken over by this mix of languages. I would have loved that – as one who knows Lear pretty well from having spent a year torturing myself, and it, in Higher School Certificate essays. To let the music and physicality of these languages do their own thing, and swamp Shakespeare’s English, would have represented a final victory. And perhaps that was one prompt for the smiles at the end: a reverse colonisation, in which an English tradition is invaded and taken over by Indigenous tongues. There was death, yes, but there was also music.
‘A Cautionary Tale About the Appalling Dangers of Family Life'
By Shane Maloney
Shakespeare’s King Lear is a cautionary tale about the appalling dangers of family life. Thanks to its long inclusion in the Western canon, its general gist is familiar even to those of us who have never seen a production of the play. Which is pretty well everybody in the known universe.
Combining retirement planning with a paternal power game, the old king declares his decision to divide his kingdom between his three daughters on the basis of who sucks up to him the most. Regan and Goneril lay on the flattery with a trowel but Goody-Two-Shoes Cordelia refuses to play along on the grounds that she loves him too much. The rotten daughters win the prize. Cordelia gets frozen out, cursed and cut off. Now riding high, Regan and Cordelia proceed to give the old man the bum’s rush. Accompanied by his sidekick, the Fool, Lear wanders the landscape, ranting and railing and generally going barking mad as the significance of his decision sinks in. Meanwhile, something, something, various earls, the whole Sturm-und-Drang, something, something. (Face it – with Shakespeare, if you can figure out half of what’s going on, you’re doing well.) Predictably, it all ends badly. More or less everybody finishes up dead.
The Shadow King takes this central premise, shifts the action to a remote aboriginal community, dispenses with the high-faluting language in favour of a mix of Katherine Kriol, Yolgnu, Baard and Torres Strait Creole, adds music and video and transforms the play into a parable about the land and legitimacy. The idea is intriguing but the effort to shoe-horn these two elements — the Shakespearean and the Indigenous – is a considerable challenge for the cast. All up, they make a pretty good fist of it.
The stage is an expanse of red earth. At its centre a set of steps revolves and moves forward to become a mining truck and serve as a screen for film projections. To the left sits the band, this Lear’s mob, a bunch of wisecracking layabouts in place of the original Lear’s rowdy entourage of knights.
Tom E. Lewis plays Lear. Tom is 55 now, statistically old for a blackfella. When he makes his appearance at the top of the steps, cock-of-the-walk in a cardboard crown, we see the deeply lined, weathered face of a survivor. He is a man full of himself, a cunning glint in his eye. He swaggers like a champion but one that is past his prime. Lewis devised this role but he seemed to waver a bit under the weight of his crown. I had doubts about his ability to pull it off until the visceral scene when he goes fully nuts. From that point on, he had me convinced.
Jada Albert’s Goneril and Natasha Wanganeen’s Regan are satisfactorily proper pieces of work, abrading each other with sibling resentments. Their inheritance is turning toxic. Dad’s derangement is getting worse and the alpha male of the town, Edmund, is driving a wedge of sexual rivalry between them while simultaneously plotting to get his hands on the land their father bequeathed them. Greed and selfishness are driving them down the path of destruction.
Edmund has grievances arising from his illegitimacy. He is the wrong skin. Edgar, his legitimate half-brother is the favoured one. Edmund rages against the unfairness. We might feel some sympathy for him if he wasn’t such a prick. The role is played by Jimi Bani. I’ve only ever seen Bani on television in Mabo and The Straits. He’s an actor who does brooding silence very well but here the script doesn’t allow him to play to his strengths. He runs around, fuming and shouting. Gloucester, originally Lear’s most loyal earl, is transmogrified into Edmund and Edgar ’s mother, played by Frances Djubiling. She witnesses her family tear itself apart with a dignified endurance that bespeaks more natural authority than all the blustering Lear can ever muster.
The Fool, played by the scene-stealing Kamahi Djordan King, anchors the story. Dressed in scruffy motley, feet planted firmly in the red earth, he conducts us through the proceedings with his jester’s sceptre (or is it some sort of ritual object?), cracking gags and singing songs as he goes. ‘We’re here to tell you one of your Dreamtime stories and make it one of ours’, he announces at the outset. Later, not a little tongue in cheek, he uses Shakespeare’s line about Merlin not being born yet to lay implicit claim to the story being an ancient Aboriginal one, all along. It’s an idea that bounces well off the little bit of self-quotation when the band plays the No Fixed Address number ‘We Have Survived’, written by Bart Willoughby – who happens to be one of the musicians.
His delusions falling apart, Lear wanders the outback, communing with the Fool and a haunted bush spirit in ceremonial paint and feathers. This turns out to be Edgar, on the run from his lethal half-brother. Footage of a dramatic landscape, a place of cliffs and gorges, provides the backdrop and makes the point. Here is country, the nub of the tragedy. Lear has given away something he never owned in the first place. The land does not belong to us. We belong to the land.
The Shadow King does not always work, although the performances and staging are frequently compelling. What really makes the play resonate is the centrality of the issues with which it wrestles. In the week that it opened, Four Corners ran a story about ructions in the Jawoyn community in Katherine over land rights, mining royalties and positions of influence. Tom E. Lewis is from Katherine.
‘Long Live the King’: On The Shadow King
By Melissa Lucashenko
Ever since the High Court found in 1992 that native title exists in Australia, Indigenous families all over the joint have been hurled into direct, bitter conflict over land, resources, and recognition. Colonisation damaged (in many cases shattered) our pre-existing Aboriginal legal systems which saw us lead good, sustainable lives here for millennia. When the scraps of native title were chucked on the table for us to fight over, everything in our black lives changed. Now, two decades on, this legal and political tsunami is being expressed forcefully in nearly every art form available to Aboriginal people: in painting, in film, in literature, and now in theatre.
Tom E. Lewis, the accomplished Aboriginal actor from Katherine, was yarning with Michael Kantor about the interplay of native title politics and mining in the Northern Territory. ‘You know’, Lewis told Kantor, ‘It’s a tragedy, just like that King Lear story of yours.’ The conversation kickstarted a project years in the making, which culminated this month in the savage, searing production which is Lewis and Kantor’s co-created The Shadow King.
Lewis should be no stranger to older Australian audiences; in 1977 he played Jimmy Blacksmith for acclaimed director Fred Schepisi. Jimmy Blacksmith’s fight in that seminal film was with the white man, and with his own growing rage as a subject of colonial violence. It says something for Australian artistic development that we can now enjoy a piece of co-written Aboriginal theatre which doesn’t focus at all on white society. One of the best things about The Shadow King is that literally the only mention of whitefellas comes in a song, early in the piece (No Fixed Address: ‘We Have Survived’). Then the action sweeps past the issue of survival into its full power, and asks two far more pertinent questions. Just what is going on in Aboriginal families, and what exactly is at the heart of the greed, corruption — and madness – which emerge when native title and mining royalties are fed into otherwise dispossessed black hands? Here in Lewis and Kantor’s Lear we are given our own Aboriginal Heroes, Villains, Kings, Queens and Fools. Mullaga is offstage, for once. This is as it should be. In lots of important ways the Aboriginal nations have worried about white people long enough. It’s long past time to talk more about who we are, and who we blackfellas must become to reclaim our sovereign rights in Australia. (Wesley Enoch at QTC in Brisbane knows this, and so does Ilbijerri).
In the opening scene of Shadow King, Lewis struts wonderfully atop a staircase, dressed like Elvis in a white suit, a shiny gold crown on his head. He is, of course, debating who among his daughters deserves his kingdom. But very soon a huge earthmover roars to life on stage; its powerful headlights blind the audience. ‘Another kind of thunder’ is coming, the Fool warns us, and we must have ears to hear and eyes to see, if the coming storm of vanity, betrayal and madness is to be avoided. Lear being Lear, though, the descent is inevitable. Regan (Natasha Wanganeen) and Jada Alberts’ Goneril (‘Gonhorreal’) flatter their way into massive slabs of Lear’s ancestral land. The righteous Cordelia is exiled – ‘Who you? You nothing! You not my daughter no more! Git!’ - while Edgar (the excellent Damion Hunter) is betrayed by his bastard ‘gutter one’ brother, Edmund. By the end of the play the stage is littered with the traditional avalanche of Shakespearean bodies, and little, if anything, has been learnt. This is indeed, as the Fool promised, ‘a sorry-one story’.
Has the ambitious co-creation worked? Is a mix of Kriol, Standard English, Yolgnu Matha from Arnhem land, and Torres Strait pidgin thrown together with Shakespearean iambic pentameter anything more than a gimmick? The answer is yes, resoundingly so. The show is a triumph. Lewis as a strutting, earthy Lear, looking for ‘cockles’. Jimi Bani playing the despicable, murderous Edmund with beautifully controlled menace. Kamahi Djordon King as the narrating Fool — all brilliant, complex performances. The male leads are tortured in their own individual ways. But the Fool is the wisest and saddest of the lot, the one who sees the clearest and ends by lamenting that in the wake of Lear’s folly, as the death toll soars, it is all ‘too late, too late’.
Is it too late, though? I have very mixed feelings about any art which includes, and especially that which concludes with, dead Aboriginal bodies. The myth of the dying race is so strong and so pervasive that I hate to see it given any more momentum. And there is tragedy enough in Aboriginal lives: whether reproducing it in art is positively cathartic or a self-defeating mistake is perhaps an unanswerable question. I watched this play recently bereaved by a close suicide. No surprise then, that the moment where Gloucester – a female character here, played solidly by Yolgnu actor Frances Julubing — throws herself from the cliff in despair brought me, last Thursday night, to tears. But then so did the electric scene where Cordelia (Rarriwiy Hick) comes to Lear sitting on the blasted heath and he asks her in bewilderment where he is: Is this another country?
Cordelia takes Lear’s flailing hand. She presses it to the red pindan. His sole faithful daughter, she reminds him what his country is and what it means, and urges him to his feet with a fierce imperative to act like the King he is: Now, dance!! And as he slowly rises to his feet and does so, Lewis is transformed, and we watching are transported, thrilled, bewitched. You could forget in this sublime moment that Lear is a tragedy. You could hope for everything to be saved within this one dance, one song. But no. The evil Edmund is revealed waiting in the background, a rifle slung across his broad black shoulders, and pitiless lust for power in his gaze.
In the course of the play it is most definitely ‘too late’: the three sisters die, one at her own hand, the other two murdered by Edmund. Lear dies of a broken heart. Edmund dies, shot by the wronged Edgar. The mining companies are moving in, regardless of the black family ripping itself apart as the engines roar to life. And the Fool dies too, but since in ’this play the dead can walk and talk‘ it is not the end of him. The Fool stands and addresses the audience, two-thirds of the way through the narrative, and here he does a most wonderful thing. He removes the noose that has killed him from his own black neck, using his own two black hands. Like Aboriginal people across the continent, The Fool was dead, but he just wouldn’t fall down. And that’s the point here, or a big part of it anyway.
The other part is the simple but undeniably powerful fact of Tom E. Lewis on stage as an Aboriginal King. Not a drunk. Not a petty crim. Not a hunted outlaw. A King. As a young boy in Katherine, Lewis was hidden by his mothers and grandmothers from the Welfare. This country would happily have taken him away from his people, eradicated the ‘stain’ of his Aboriginality and called him white. But in 2013 Lewis can stand before Australia an Aboriginal man in his prime, and declare that he is ‘every inch a King’. Too bloody right he is. And by gifting us Aboriginal eyes to see Lear anew, Lewis has done something powerful, and necessary, and inspirational. Lewis and Kantor together have taken Shakespeare – ’that King Lear of yours’ – and transferred ownership of it. Lear is a blackfellas' play now, too, a native title, and not just a white man’s one. Long live the King.
Just saw most incredible indigenous interpretation of King Lear, ‘Shadow King.’ If you are in Melbourne this is a must see! #@MalthouseMelb
So proud of The Shadow King cast bringing the show home last night. Seriously inspiring bunch of people.
The Shadow King is a great adaptation of King Lear, an indigenous reinterpretation starring Tom E Lewis (Chant of… fb.me/183NrDZeU
The Shadow King Aboriginal King Lear worth a trip to the Malthouse. The taxi driver who refused to pick up cast members should go too.
The multilingual text blends lyricism and an unmannered naturalism, and is complemented by the earthy characterisation — (Jada) Albert’s commanding Goneril, for example, is a single mother with a husband in jail.
The text is an intriguing mash-up of Shakespeare, local dialects and Kriol; when it works it’s rhythmical and mesmerising with a unique cadence. Even though The Shadow King isn’t meant to be King Lear, rather an adaptation thereof, this aspect of its language could be better developed; the potential for something aurally ravishing wasn’t fully achieved and at times the text seems simply too loose.
Oh Melbourne people you must must must see The Shadow King at Malthouse - absolutely stunning theatre #melbfest
It doesn’t matter if there are flaws in the production. We are transported by the bigger picture, and thoroughly entertained at the same time. It’s so rare these days to leave a theatre with your head and heart brimming with questions and the need for discussion.
I’ve been allowed into first day of rehearsal for The Shadow King @MalthouseMelb. Fair to say something special is happening here.
Does it work? The tale translates powerfully and the performances were raw and real, with Lewis projecting the dilemmas and complexities of Lear superbly.
Some of the comedic moments and silly dances, as well as the more extreme characterisations — such as Edmund’s leaps from charm to madness — occasionally felt forced. A film montage of Lear being hunted down in the outback is shocking and memorable, but veers into horror movie territory.
The Shadow King has many moments that seem off-kilter, many phrases that will have Shakespeare’s words pinging like an echo in your ears.
But it has an earthiness and immediacy that lingers in the mind and it is, in spite of everything, a daring reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic in a modern setting.
After leaving this play, one can’t help but feel a sense of having seen something uniquely special; something that will be talked about, written about and memorialised in the history of Australian theatre for years to come.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! etc. Can apply to this pesky Melbourne weather AND a v.moving Shadow King @MalthouseMelb
So much to like about The Shadow King but somehow it failed to move me. It was as if several different plays were being performed at once.
What the show does triumphantly is to plant the story of Lear firmly in the present, using Shakespeare’s structures to illuminate some complex and difficult truths about how short-sighted greed is destroying both our environment and our relationships. It’s ambitious, epic theatre that lays bare its politics and plunges it straight into the heart of the audience.
One of the most absorbing and compelling ingredients of the story is the intoxicating use of indigenous language that appears to spring from the earth itself.
Shadow King at the Malthouse. Just wonderful.
Loved @MalthouseMelb’s The Shadow King, so did the Yr 11s! Let’s get this on 2014 VCE Drama playlist! Go see it.
Malthouse Theatre today, watched The Shadow King!
It was so awesome, like, who knew King Lear could be made so amusing? :D
At times, it felt like there were too many cooks, or too many cultural and political agendas being served, or (dare I say it) too much goodwill, and not enough hard-nosed decision-making from the creative team, leading to an (in some ways) ground-breaking production, but not an awe-inspiring one. In short, a bit of a missed opportunity.
The production has some interesting elements that illuminate the tragic journey of a deluded old man from ignorance to wisdom, a dysfunctional community that has lost its way, and its relationship to country when it is infected with white man’s greed.
However, the tragedy is not fully realised in the production and the trajectory of old Lear’s mental downfall is not sufficiently emotionally connected to make him the centre of this modern, indigenous tale of woe.
As it is, The Shadow King comes close to transcendent; with a better text it might have gotten there. But it’s worth sitting through its failings - for each of them, there are multiple moments of brilliance. The Shadow King isn’t perfect theatre, but it’s incredibly powerful.
Tom E Lewis in The Shadow King …. Brilliant! Fab take on Lear. Bravo Sir! Great community crowd at The Malthouse. #melbfest
Performances were somewhat uneven at Wednesday’s premiere, and the script has more endings than a Beethoven symphony, but there is a shape and assurance in the production that inspires confidence on both sides of the footlights. … The Shadow King is a fine show already - the most enjoyable Lear I’ve seen - and it will only tighten and improve.
With live music, five spoken languages and an understanding of the story that’s so much deeper than the text, this is the first Lear that made me care and wish for a happier ending.
@MelbFestival The Shadow King was superb. Incredibly thought-provoking and powerful. Fantastic staging and well-acted. Great show.
Like watching a more traditional performance of Shakespeare, I couldn’t understand every word or even every phrase, but it didn’t matter. The story was clear.
The use of a Shakespearean classic to tell an Indigenous tale of family destruction, greed, corruption and deception works strikingly well and makes the tale more accessible to a broader audience.
Music underscores the story but the strongest sound is the unaccompanied, amplified voice chanting in pain as Lear’s mind disintegrates and Djulibing’s solo lament as she faces death.
Tom E Lewis is inspirational as Lear in ‘The Shadow King’. King Lear in indigenous setting reinvigorates & revitalises #@MalthouseMelb
… what did work was the wonderfully evil Jimi Bani & the extraordinary moment when Lear began singing & dancing his way through madness. Then the production soared!
… - oh yes, and Murray Lui’s beautiful film projections :)
… Shadow King very successfully combined modern & Shakespearian English, Torres Strait & Katherine Creoles, and Yolngu. Exemplary!
It is inevitable that the Shadow King will be praised simply because it is so unique, but it also deserves recognition for its unapologetic honesty. Nothing about the play is sugar coated and each character has an implicitly negative trait. Though the directors are conveying a message about Aboriginal politics, they have not shied away from criticisms of the Indigenous community either.
Frances Djulibing mesmerises as a gender-reversed Gloucester; Kamahi Djordon King is superbly cast as the wise Fool, who narrates the tragedy. A live band led by Bart Willoughby doubles as a humbugging mob, the pretext for Regan and Goneril to cast their ageing father out.
The Shadow King ultimately boils down to the fundamental message of the story that befittingly suits the country: the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land.
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