Review: Queen Lear ~ theatre notes

Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Queen Lear

For the first thirty seconds I thought we were in for something special in Queen Lear. Robyn Nevin in the titular role, regally costumed in red, is lushly illuminated backstage studying her face in a mirror, a cameo blooming out of impenetrable darkness. Four corridors of light delineate the borders of the stage and she paces them slowly, marking out her realm. It is arresting and bold theatrical image-making. But almost nothing in this production bears out the opening promise. Misled, misconceived, misdirected, Queen Lear is almost baffling.

Robyn Nevin in Queen Lear. Photo: Jeff Busby

There's absolutely no reason why Nevin, one of our most majestic actors, should not play this towering role. What's much less clear is why Lear therefore had to be a woman. In Benedict Andrews's sublime The War of the Roses, Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe played Richard II and Richard III without changing the sex of the role: as I said at the time, "we are made pricklingly aware that Richard is an actor, a player who is, moreover, a woman, Pamela Rabe, who after the play is over will walk off the stage, strip off her costume and take a shower. This double consciousness of performance is a particularly Shakespearean trope, and Andrews has exploited it to the hilt in The War of the Roses." The playing of the kings by women in that case heightened Shakespeare's essential theatricality, and brought the question of gender into intriguing play.

Here the assumption seems to be that feminising Lear has only a superficial effect on the play's meaning: as in a Lego set, all you have to do is take out the boy toy and stick in the girl toy. Since Lear is, among many other things, a profound study of patriarchy, one would expect that changing the sex of the title role might have been thought through a little more. Afterwards, seeking some clues, I read director and dramaturge Rachel McDonald's note in the program. It opens with a bald statement: "King Lear is a political story that also deals with revelation, reconciliation and the infinite".  The "infinite"? O-kay...

McDonald then drags us through some pop psychobabble ("in dysfunctional relationships, we often fall into the roles of Bully, Rescuer or Victim. In this play we watch characters continually rotate their way through this Drama Triangle"). There's reference to single-parent families - Gloucester and Lear - and "abusive parenting". We are told that "Lear's gender is almost irrelevant. The play doesn't concern itself with gender issues..." And then, confusingly: "Our female Lear is not gender-neutral casting: we are not side-stepping the issue of gender. We are embracing it, imagining the story as written for a woman in the first place." What we have, according to McDonald, is a "re-focusing" of the story, with a bad mother instead of a bad father.

I really don't know where to begin with this, but it's fair to say this note reflects the production. Lear might not be about "gender issues", but gender plays into it all the time in complex and often ambiguous ways. Lear's gender isn't irrelevant: he is a king, an absolute patriarch, in a society that is absolutely patriarchal. This is a crucial aspect of his relationship with his daughters: Richard Eyre's domestic 1998 production, which focused on the family drama, drew this out brilliantly.

Moreover, you can't help reflecting that if Shakespeare had written Lear as a woman, it would have been an entirely different play. In Shakespeare's time there was a notable queen, Elizabeth I, a politically brilliant tyrant who retained power by the expedient of not marrying: unlike her unluckier cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, she knew very well that marriage would signal the death of her authority. Instead, she played her sex as the Virgin Queen ("Better beggar woman and single than Queen and married", as she famously told William Cecil). Queen Lear, the mother of three daughters, would be a very different creature to King Lear, the father. Imaginatively wrenching Lear into a story about a bad mother is by no means impossible, but it requires a deal more intellectual finesse than is on show here: such a central change has domino effects throughout the drama, and almost none of these are addressed.

McDonald's editing of the play is injudicious, to say the least. Much of this production makes no sense because important plot points (most grievously, the marriage of Cordelia to France and their subsequent invasion of England) have been cut altogether. Without the political framework of war, the treatment of Gloucester is reduced to reasonless sadism: we have no idea why he should be tortured. More significantly, the Fool - a role absolutely crucial to the central meanings of the play - is removed altogether, to be replaced by a series of appearances by the three daughters in ghostly nightgowns, voicing Lear's inner doubts.

The usual doubling is the Fool and Cordelia (in Shakespeare's play, the Fool mysteriously disappears after the storm scene, and we never hear what happens to him). In their mutual vulnerabilities and honesty, Cordelia and the Fool illuminate the humanity in Lear's psyche, its absence early in the play, and its revelation later: distributing the Fool between Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, and cutting Cordelia's story, completely dissipates the power of these roles. For these and other reasons, Lear loses her crucial moments of empathy, which in turn deprives the significant turns in the play - the prayer during the storm scene, or her reconciliation with Cordelia - of their potency.

The production itself is a startling instance of meaningless over-design. Niklas Pajanti's palette of absolute darkness and focused illumination is gorgeous, but Tracy Grant Lord's set is strangely bitty. Its main feature is golden chains descending from the ceiling: these are mostly used as prop carriers, so random objects (a bicycle, or a cage, or a landscape painting that presumably represents the realm) can be lowered. A lot of the time the chains just get in the way. As the play progresses, some of them keep falling, with a liquid sound, so their links pile up on the stage, but this didn't happen to all of them, which I found curiously irritating. I spent some fruitless time trying work out what they meant: were they the chains of power? If so, what did that mean? Or what?

Stage right is a weird phallic construction which seems merely superfluous. It rises and falls, sometimes acting as a plinth for a chair or a vision of the Fool, or as a fountain. I don't at all understand the convention of the costumes, which shift between Ruritania-style braided uniforms to contemporary dress to 1940s formal glamour to, I don't know, some kind of Slavic steampunk. Why is Edgar (Rohan Nicol) in preppie bicycle shorts, and why is it necessary for him to remain half naked as Poor Tom in the final fight with Edmund, when he is supposed to reveal as Edgar? Everything opens and closes and goes up and down, but nowhere is there any sense of a unifying vision.

It's not all bad news. In a plethora of performances that all seem to be from different productions, Robert Menzies's Kent is a beautiful and moving portrayal, and one of the few instances where the changing of gender makes sense: his loyalty to Lear is illuminated by a passionate, unspoken love. Greg Stone's wheelchair-bound Albany likewise makes strong work of a role that's often primly wishy-washy. In the second half, in scenes between Gloucester (Richard Piper) and Edgar, or Gloucester and Lear, there are flashes of what might have been: the poignancy of some of the greatest scenes ever written start to register, and you begin to see how changing the sex of Lear might have brought something new to the role.

Nevin's Lear is always virtuosic, but is so badly let down by the lack of a thought-through framework that her character remains cold and unmoving. In particular, too often the nuance is missing in an insistence on her femininity: ironically, she is at her best when she is arrogantly royal, or humbly human, without reference to her femaleness. Alexandra Schepisi in the crucial role of Cordelia is hampered because we have no idea what happens to her after Lear banishes her, and consequently little idea of who she is, but it has to be said that her performance is utterly flat.

The mother/daughter relationships between Goneril (Genevieve Picot), Regan (Belinda McClory) and Lear never sparked for me. These are the central relationships in this reading of the play, and yet somehow, despite fine efforts, they never made emotional sense. Picot was not always audible, either, despite being miked. I suspect the problem here is in dozens of tiny details: would Queen Lear really be carousing with her soldiers? Can Lear's speech about the sulphurous devilry of female sexuality really transfer with proper force to feminine self-hatred? How much sense does it make for a queen who has been shouting throughout the play to say "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman"? Wouldn't an aging, tyrannical queen jealously eye the youth and power of her daughters? And so on.

That these questions insist themselves demonstrate that "embracing gender" in the interpretation of this play is no simple thing. At the centre is the question of transgression: the rebellions of Regan and Goneril against their father have the more force in this hierarchical universe as they are transgressions against male authority. Lear's blind confidence in his authority is a very masculine entitlement: no woman in a position of power would be so cavalierly unaware of the consequences of relinquishing it. This is absolutely embedded in the play, for good or ill, and you can't solve that problem by ignoring it. If the production itself had not been so incompetent, perhaps we could have been beguiled into ignoring these questions, but the absurdities are overwhelming. The buck stops with the director here: this is a text that deserves a lot more respect. God, as Flaubert once said, is in the details.

Further reading: Brook's Lear

Queen Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed and adapted by Rachel McDonald. Design by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, sound design by Iain Grandage. With Robyn Nevin, Genevieve Picot, Belinda McClory, Alexandra Schepisi, Richard Piper, David Paterson, Rohan Nichol, Robert Menzies, Greg Stone and Nicholas Hammond. Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, until August 18.


Anonymous said...

I think the costume issue can be explained by the mysterious object, downstage right: It looked remarkable like the inside of the tardis in the new Dr Who. time travel... that answers it.

Alison Croggon said...

*Much struck*. The TARDIS! Of course!

Anonymous said...

oh. and i was looking forward to this...hope's lowered...

Alison Croggon said...

Well, you might love it. But certainly, I was enormously disappointed.

Anonymous said...

the best thing i enjoyed about the piece was the inspiration i gained as to how i would direct it better. brownie points for the set and lighting design. and what about Rohan Nichol as Edgar/Mad Tom? his performance deserves some recognition.

Gabriela said...

Must say I disagree with most of the observations about the gender shift being problematic or ineffective. I loved that aspect of the production and thought it shone some interesting and strange lights on the text. I agree that Cordelia was wooden and unmoving, did not like the divided and psychological fantasy fool concept, and the set was kind of mad and border-line annoying.. But I thought Nevin was brilliant and carried it, assisted by great work from Kent and good work from Gloucester and Reagan. Edmund a bit disappointing and Edgar ok in the second half ;)

Footlights, Frames and Fiction said...

Alison, a fascinating review and you've really delved into what's wrong with this show. I too felt we were in for a special show in those opening minutes. How stunning was that vision of Nevin in the red gown with her daughters standing beside her? It was a fantastic opening scene but by the middle of the second act, I just wanted it to end, to be honest. It wasn't entertaining, didn't make me feel anything. Makes me wonder what it would be like to put Nevin in the role in a smaller, intimate theatre, without messing with the text, without distracting props, and with some better casting, especially of the daughters. I felt the production did not serve Nevin well.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi all - thanks your comments. Gabriela, I'd be interested in your thoughts on how the gender shift illuminated the text. Could you expand? As I said in the review, there was a hint now and then (in the wonderful scene with Gloucester, say) when I could see the possibilities. But the dramaturgy of the play was so massacred that those exquisite scenes lacked force for me.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi FFF - you were lost in spam limbo for a moment there. I agree, what a missed opportunity. You could do it at the Sumner: Lear is a big play, after all. As Cameron says in his review in today's Age, the stage dynamics between the actors (or the lack of them) really sucked the energy out of the space and the performances.

Footlights, Frames and Fiction said...

Just read Cameron's review and not surprised by his reaction. It's interesting what he says about this play turning people off theatre. I think it will turn people off Shakespeare. My partner reckons the MTC should leave S-peare to Bell, and do more contemporary stuff like Red Stitch do. After seeing Queen Lear, I tend to agree. Of course, these S-peare shows at MTC have been sell-outs, so why would they stop?

Richard Pettifer said...

Thanks for the supremely entertaining review Alison.

Shakespeare can be a stand-in for the entirity of patriarchal western culture and subverting or even disempowering (dismembering?) of the text is a neccessary part of this play's open mission statement, as opposed to Andrews production, which arguably acheived nothing for femenism beyond employment of some extra female actors (notable but not revolutionary). If anything all the whimsy and ecstaticism just promoted more status quo.

Surely the first base for a femenist reading of Lear would massacre the text rather than worshipfully "illuminating" it.

Possibly your reverance for the Bard standing in the way of any attempted castration of him?? But having read Cameron's review today as well, and not seen the show, there seems to be a rupture opening up that is either disturbing or brilliant.

Is it possible there is some other, more subversive logic going on here and you "just didn't get it"?

And is it also possible you're not the only one? It seems plausible to me that, in a culture that rarely challenges gender roles in a meaningful way, there would be a measure of widespread resistence to an ambitious target like the one this production wears on its sleeve.

Just speculating. But questions worth asking, surely. I doubt that this is a production worth slamming in the ways it has been slammed so far.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Richard - Wut? (I mean, really - wut?) I presume you saw The War of the Roses? I have no idea if Andrews was "doing anything for feminism", but his casting certainly elicited a couple of completely brilliant performances that brought a ealth of meaning to the text. (Well, rather more than a couple - I'll never forget Robert Menzies or Ewen Lesley in that show either, among others...) Whimsy? You can be as critical of TWOTR as you like - many people were - but anyone claiming a skerrick of "whimsy" in that production wasn't watching. And I really don't know what you mean by its promoting the status quo - politically it was deeply interesting, in its portrayal of total war.

Shakespeare is much too complex to be dismissed as a "stand-in for patriarchal western culture". Certainly some parts of the culture treat his plays that way, but always at the expense of the work. I suggest a reading of one of the classics, Radical Tragedy, for another view. It's one of the reasons he keeps being produced.

Of course there's a possibility I didn't "get it". There always is. In fact, I am 100 per cent sure I didn't get this production. I mostly watched it in incredulity. I laid out my reasons why above. Feel free to explain what it is I didn't get.

Alison Croggon said...

That would be *wealth.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi FFF - let's not forget the MTC's brilliant Richard III.

Theatre Virgin said...

Hi Alison,

I saw Queen Lear last night and am so relieved to actually read this review. You have echoed many of my thoughts and I think you sum up one of the major issues with the play when you mention that a Queen would not be so hasty to relinquish her Kingdom. This is only the second Shakespeare play I have seen (following Macbeth last month which I loved) but was thoroughly bored. Sometimes I wonder why directors/theatre companies try to "re-invent the wheel" when there are new plays worthy of production and that might actually engage an audience and encourage new bums on seats. The idea of Queen Lear is a tantalising one, as is casting Robyn Nevin in it, and makes for wonderful marketing and initial ticket sales I'm sure, but the audience reaction last night upon closing made it clear how flat everyone felt by the experience. Even Robyn Nevin glanced at her co-star as if to say "oh dear". At interval I was furiously trying to educate myself on King Lear via wiki and Queen Lear via the program notes but unlike my experience with Macbeth, I couldn't be "saved"! And like you, I absolutely loved the opening scene, but it was, regrettably for me, the highlight of the play. It's a real shame because I wanted to love it, I tried hard to love it (much harder than I should have), but maybe my lack of "experience" with Shakespeare and the changes in gender were too much for this theatre virgin to cope with.

Richard Pettifer said...

Wut-wut???? I was watching very closely I assure you! I reserve the right to call tossing multicoloured flowers around on stage and 1 hour of golden tickertape shower somewhat whimsical! I am not neccessarily critical of that, and I do not mean meanlingless, I quite liked it. I also think it was quite 'focused' whimsy, and it was making a real and worthwhile argument. But this production appears to have a completely different target.

I think that production had a fairly neutral or apathetic stance to femenism. i.e it didn't have a stance. Feel free to disagree with this, and there would be arguments against. Pamela Rabe's Richard was certainly powerful, and it depends on your view of the value of cross-gender casting.

My comment that Shakespeare can be a stand in for Western patriarchy simply referes to the fact that he is an incredibly powerful canonised white male author. Within Gender politics, this makes him an obvious target. This is not a reductive statement - it's factual. It doesn't mean he ain't a good writer. It doesn't have anything to do with the quality of his writing.

I again state that I have not seen the play and so cannot specifically criticise. I think you have a hunch you're missing something, and I was just speculating based on the reverence on display.

For that reason I'll leave it to others to explain what you didn't get - personally I doubt they will come. You might argue this is unfortunate.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TV - oh, such a shame. I know it's absurd picking favourites among the great plays, but King Lear really is my favourite, and the one that really made me fall in love with Shakespeare. It's a stunning play that ought to make you cry.

There are a few versions on DVD. Peter Brook's King Lear is hard to get hold of, but well worth it - unremitting and harsh. The Richard Eyre production I mentioned, with Ian Holm as Lear, is available from the BBC. But maybe one of my favourite film treatments, which actually does give you an insight into the play, is not the play at all - it's The Dresser, with Tom Courtney and Albert Finney. It's about what happens backstage as a famous Shakespearean actor (in the old fashioned sense) readies to perform Lear, in the midst of war and mental breakdown. It's really a meditation on the relationship between Lear and his Fool. I've seen it several times now and each time it's funnier and breaks my heart more.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Richard - I suspect we have very different ideas on the meaning of "whimsy".

I really think you're confusing analysis of gender in a work with a propagandist feminism here. They're not at all the same thing. But fwiw, casting women in male roles (or vice versa) of course will highlight the play of gender. Shakespeare was totally aware of that.

And no, I don't have a hunch I'm "missing something". I'm quite certain that McDonald hasn't thought through the implications of changing the gender of Lear (among other things), with very unfortunate consequences for the production.

Alison Croggon said...

PS "Respect" ≠ "Reverence".

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Alison,

Happy to acknowledge that we have different ideas on the meaning of whimsy - as long as you acknowledge that I am the one with the normal idea :)

Well, you seem mighty mad at the thought the text might have been disrespected.

And I think what I'm suggesting could only be considered propagandic from a particular institutional point of view, one that considers Shakespeare a genderless, embedded, accepted, "given". I call that reverence, and it is used to diffuse any counter-argument, which is what makes any oppositional production which finds success such a coup-d'etat.

Honestly, I'm just suggesting the possibility that the conceit behind this production finds a cultural incompatibility with embedded gender politics, and that things follow on from there. Is it that crazy?

To me, it seems like a reasonable explanation for what from your review seems like a confused production.

As for you "missing something", you have referred now several times to your bemusement, and also invited on multiple occasions someone to make a counter-arguement. You'll forgive me for interpreting that as feeling like you are wanting to explore some more ideas.

I'm quite sure Rachel lay at night turning the gender politics of Lear over and over in her head like most directors do with their concepts. Maybe her crime was not pushing hard enough, and clearly enough? Or maybe she was just met with such feirce parochialism that whatever strength the production could have found dissipated.

Again, just speculation, based on the nothing that nothing canst come from.

I'm not going to debate the value of cross-gender casting either except that I feel as though it's been done so much recently that I wonder whether it can still shock at all.

Theatre Virgin said...

Hi Alison,

Thank you so very much for the versions of Lear that you have mentioned - I will make an effort to hunt them down now.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Richard - here's what I mean by whimsy: "whim·sy also whim·sey (hw m z , w m -). n. pl. whim·sies also whim·seys. 1. An odd or fanciful idea; a whim. 2. A quaint or fanciful quality: stories full of whimsy." Nothing in WOTR was quaint, or fanciful, or the result of whim; although sometimes I think your posts are.

As for the rest: you wilfully misread what I have written, which makes it impossible to argue. I am saying the precise opposite of what you claim here: that gender DOES matter in King Lear, that you CAN'T treat the play as if it's written (or played) in a vacuum: that we live in a patriatrchal society, that the play is about patriarchy, and that you can't ignore these things. My bemusement emerges from the fact that a production sold on gender politics can demonstrate such blithe ignorance of the ideas supposedly at its heart. I'm quite sure, however, that the idea is not to "shock".

Perhaps you should get along to the show and see for yourself. There might be some point to this argument.

I know you read TN: I don't know, given my defence of all sorts of contemporary treatments of classic texts, how you can say that my respect for Shakespeare emerges from a deadening reverence for the Master which causes me to fling up my hands in dismay at new treatments of the texts. I do demand that such readings are thoughtful, that they deal intelligently with the plays, and that they are aware of what they mean historically and as expressions of contemporary society. In other words, I think theatre means something. No apologies for that.

Alison Croggon said...

Perhaps this might clarify things slightly: here's redoutable feminist Kerryn Goldsworthy commenting on this review on FB: "The very idea -- I've not seen the play, but I certainly feel qualified to talk about the idea -- is enough to strike despair into the heart of any feminist: it indicates an utter failure to understand what patriarchy actually is and means. And if women with the cultural chops and clout to mount such a production still don't understand this, what hope is there of ever making the punters understand it?"

Alison Croggon said...

Just saw you there, TV - I do hope you enjoy them.

Anne-Marie said...

@Theatre Virgin

I know Lear pretty well and also went to the 'pedia during interval to check if I'd totally missed something on the stage. Nup, Cordelia and her suitors was cut.

No matter who the writer or the experience of the audience, if the story is not being told on the stage, all the rest is a waste of everyone's time. (I didn't enjoy The Scottish one cos I had no idea what was going on.)

I had a more positive experience than most at Queenie Lear. I quite enjoyed the first half because I thought the director was telling HER story about Lear clearly. I was even ready to accept the TARDIS and Cindy Brady/Cordelia

But Act 2 sucked my love dry.

DS said...

Regarding the director not fully thinking through the implications of changing Lear's gender - in my thinking, if Lear had been a Queen, the plot would have unfolded entirely differently in that Edmund would have made a play for the Queen directly, not wait till she passed her kingdom on to her daughters. That said, I wasn't bothered by the fact that Lear was a female. What bothered me was that, if you're going to do that, then there needs to be some sense of it drawing something new and unexpected out of the text, and we didn't get that. What we got was a hotchpotch of concepts that the director had imposed on the text. I know directors do that all the time, but a good director manages to do that while letting the text shine. Here, the text was just so weighed down by some of the directorial and dramaturgical decisions that it bore little resemblance to the play it is and should be. As a theatre-goer, I'm well and truly over having directors stand between me and the text - Simon Stone's Death of a Salesman being the most recent example that I'd encountered before this Queen Lear where I felt, as an audience member, that I was being distances from the play rather than drawn into it. I really didn't recognise this as Lear - I wasn't moved, I wasn't even interested - and that's the tragedy of this whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Who knew a production could cause such a divide. It reminds me of when Kosky did his infamous version with Bell in 1998. I thought it was awesome! Can't wait to see Queen Lear

Cameron Woodhead said...

Richard Pettifer: your shit-stirring isn't really worth anything. See the show, then you can make fully informed comments about Alison's argument rather than just getting on her tits for fun.

Theatre Virgin: "At interval I was furiously trying to educate myself on King Lear via wiki and Queen Lear via the program notes..." How about doing something old school, like, I dunno, reading the play maybe.

Thoroughly agree with the timbre and main argument of your review Alison. Such incomptent direction, you have to ask why Rachel McDonald was chosen. Her theatre (as opposed to music and opera) resume looks very thin. And that program note! I've never read such an inchoate blob of bad ideas in my life - and Michael Kantor wrote some pretty ... shall we say *whimsical* ... program notes for the Malthouse in his time.

Still, I'm not sure I go all the way with you on the gender question. I shall think more on it.

Troubador said...

What divide, Anonymous? Most people agree this production failed (at least those who saw it). Are you an MTC publicist or something?

And even Kosky admitted his Lear didn't cut it.

Theatre Virgin, try Olivier's Lear which I prefer to the Ian Holm version (though the DVD transfer is crap).

Also the Russian version directed by Grigori Kozintsev is pretty amazing and probably the best I've seen.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Troubador - long time, no see! I actually really, really like the Ian Holm version. He's a counter-intuitive Lear but he brings something else to the role, and the family dynamics are cruel & clear. Olivier is, well, Olivier: never really warmed to that one. But it does have John Hurt as the Fool, incredible. And I have never seen that legendary Russian version. Every time someone mentions it I remember I should get hold of it.

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi all, I hope that I havent caused offence, and thanks for your patience with me. I don't know anything about theatre, really.

Happy to be bringing the whimsey to the table.

As usual, I am grateful just to have the conversation.

"I know you read TN: I don't know, given my defence of all sorts of contemporary treatments of classic texts, how you can say that my respect for Shakespeare emerges from a deadening reverence for the Master" etc.

It just comes from inference of your comment about respect. I inferred (incorrectly?) from this that you believe that Rachel McD does not respect Shakespeare, (and that you do). Rachel has somehow put you in the position of the purist(?) She had you nostalgically longing for the Lear that made you love theatre. I find that ironic precisely because purism is not your usual practice, as you point out.

But probably this is in fact much more average - when you see theatre that doesn't work, you long for something that does.

I will see the play before I comment further, sorry to offend you Cameron. But thanks, as I have also found some new thoughts.

James Waites said...

Sensational application of the crtic's task Alison. Obviously I haven't seen the show - and i haven't read through all the comments - just scanned them (another day). Not to disagree but just add to the pile of thoughts.Someone mentioned Kosky's Lear saying Kosky thought himself it was a failure. Kosky may have been beaten down by public opinion over the years since, but not a very Kosky action, I don't agree with that at all anyway. For play that is near impossible to get all right in any one production (always some pops out of line due to the far-ranging challenges.) Kosky production was not faultless, but to me over all nothing less than thrillingly inspired.

One feature not raised by anyone but myself (I think) at the time was the 'gender' issue. Lear can be about Gender. In Kosky's version, Lear (John Bell) is not so much feminised perhaps but certainly de-masculated - bit by bit as his power base falls away. The idea is built very slowly with cues in the evolving staging - until it explodes in an extraordinary moment at the beginning of the heath (mad) scene.

By now Lear is not only completely stripped of his power but almost all vestiges of manhood. The heath (oh so Kosky-esqe) is set in something like a hospital waiting room (or the NRMA, Centrelink etc etc) scatted of mad people sitting in several rows of neatly aligned white chairs. Here Lear walks along the rows back and forth pushing past these typical members of modern society. But by now his hair has been shorn off (all the neat artistic flair of a psychiatric centre barber) Stripped of his royal wardrobe, more to the point Lear/Bell is clothed in a pink chenille dressing gown, at all times clinging to a small Lufthansa carry bag.

Given I often have to look in my diary these days to to see what play I saw the night before, obviously the scene made an impression on me. I thought it gulpingly sad. And exquisitely bold in scene that often pops out (see above).

I send you this 3am post partly because I am awake, and also to do my bit for the ongoing gender theme running through commentary on the Nevin production and your review.

the scorpion said...

Okay, so here are summaries of this thread so far:
1. This production is really rather crap
2. This production being produced at all, is a symbol of dominant western patriarchy.
3. Some dude called Kosky did another version of it.
4. Some dude called Andrews did some version of it.
5. This production is really rather crap.

Here is what I am adding to the conversation:
1. Don't put on anymore white male english speaking 'old' playwrights plays (new ones are okay).
2. Instead, put on old non white female non english speaking 'old' playwrights plays instead (new ones are also okay).

The point is, there is only so much recognition for equality amongst gender, race, creed etc so long as the established literary goodness is continually produced.

The fact is, we only know of shakespeare still, at the expense of what has to be countless other literary works of greatness, because he was white, male and english.

Let us see real change in this theatre community by embracing work from outside the standard spectrum. This means casting great actors like Nevin et al but not in Shakespeare, but perhaps some other bits and bobs.

That way, at least the production isn't the same old who cares of the same play who cares, by the same society of who cares. Because lets face it, Kosky? White male who cares. Andrews? White male who cares. This thing? Same old play who cares. I would care though to see that expense and those creatives employed on something new fresh and exciting - perhaps even something from hundreds of years ago. Impossible that is though, because we just don't have that body of feted literature from then by female, non white or non english speaking authors do we?

Or do we? Because last time I looked, our society certainly wasn't being inculcated into knowing of such things. High schools weren't demanding subjects be created using such things. Drama schools weren't teaching such things.

And blah blah yes it's important to understand the underpinnings of western drama history (the ancient male greeks for instance), but if we really really thought that era was so frikn fantastic, we'd also be encouraging rich white men to have infants suckle their knobs in spas and be slaughtering animals for the gods.

Hmmm, perhaps leads me back to this play and production - a ritual sacrifice?

So this production: IT WAS ALWAYS GOING TO BE CRAP. This is because it's Shakespeare and I know people love to talk about how blah blah amazing and genius and speaks to us still blah blah but yeah so does political graffiti from the pharaohs and so does some other stuff from the ancients - if we only gave two shits to propel it to the height of the bard.

At the end of the day the bard's just another white poonce saying his piece. And who cares really about that?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Richard - no offence, just a little frustration at talking in circles. "Respect" in my language means taking stuff seriously - reading carefully, etc. I really do recommend Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, btw. Drawing from the Marxist readings of Raymond Williams and others to explore the subversiveness in those plays, it's a classic of its kind and remains an inspiring read. Easily ordered online. And it might open things up a little. (Also, Jan Kott's Shakespeare: Our Contemporary). Both excellent places to begin thinking about Shakespeare.

Scorpion, maybe you could read it too, although somehow I doubt you'd bother. Maybe you could also get hold of Kissing the Rod, Germaine Greer's anthology of 17th century women writers, and read some of her other writing on the Elizabethans, especially Aphra Benn (these areas are where Greer is really fine). Maybe you could read Edward Said. I don't know. You don't have to be "inculcated" into such things to find out about them. Or we could just wait for the LNP to enact a scorched earth cultural policy, which would get rid of all this pesky history. They certainly don't care.

Or maybe you could have just gone along to MKA's recent production of sex.violence.blood.gore. If you're interested in alternative possibilities, seek them out and support them. It's not like they don't exist. I really don't know what you're contributing here: frankly, it's not liberating, it's depressing.

Alison Croggon said...

PS: Thanks James. I've heard a lot about that production, and it's an enduring regret that I didn't see it.

Theatre Virgin said...

Cameron: I shouldn't have to read the play, that is my point. I go to Wiki and read program notes when I have trouble understanding or connecting to a piece of theatre; as I'm sure most people new to the theatre wouldn't invest much more of their time than that. So chastise me if you like, but my reviews and opinions come from a completely different position to the experienced, considered thoughts of yourself and Alison for example. The difference being that Alison has an ability to encourage me to continue learning about these historic texts by engaging with me in a way that is welcoming and above all enjoyable, despite the fact that her knowledge on theatre is embarrassingly ahead of mine.

Troubador said...

Don't want to spend too much time talking about other Lear productions but in brief:

Holm was good but I thought the ensemble work of Olivier's production was vastly better.

And Kosky was right. If McDonald's direction deprived the "reconciliation with Cordelia" of its potency, Kosky deprived the play of that scene.

And a better actor than Bell actor could've conveyed Lear's madness and "de-mascualtion" more effectively without the dressing gown or the Lufthansa bag.

Anonymous said...

Hi All
You can't knock Nevin's (and the more senior actors') command of Shakespeare's magnificent language about elder abuse. This treacherous treatment of parents by their children transcends time, place, class and culture and its emotional pull worked for me yesterday. Leave alone Nevin's interpretation of a majestic-even-in-madness Lear. How skilled were her twitches and mumbles subtly conveying degenerating age without much wisdom? What, no stage relationship between her and her frosty kids? It's in the text. Also loved the stage design and costumes were fine enough. I agree with you that the obfiscated role of the Fool resulted in audience confusion as did some script editing but how many unevenly performed ensemble productions have you seen? Lots I bet. Blinded Gloucester had me tearing up and Nevin's dry asides had me lol-ing.I like that in my Shakespeares.
Lear Lover

Cameron Woodhead said...

Theatre Virgin: "I shouldn't have to read the play, that is my point."

Um, I'm pretty sure Alison would be appalled by this statement, but is too polite to say so. If you want to be a good critic/theatregoer/writer/person, reading is not negotiable. The fact that you don't seem to want to, I find deeply disturbing, and the fact that you're willing to say so in public, shameless beyond measure.

Like you Alison, I have a soft spot for the Ian Holm version. Olivier was far too old when he played Lear on film, and I'm inclined to agree with Tynan's judgement that his performance is less a Lear than "unpredictable moments in the private life of Justice Shallow". Neither compare well to the savagery of Brook's version with Scofield, of course.

Kosky's Bell Shakespare production was utterly bemusing in many ways, but it was, unquestionably, provocative theatre, and a failure that still deserves to be talked about.

PS. I just read Andrew Fuhrmann's review at timeout. It's almost an apology for Queen Lear. Beyond the bounds of reasonable opinion?! Check it out.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - I've stayed out of this one, but no, I'm not appalled at all. I agree with TV. Shakespeare is a playwright, which means his work is for the stage. Of course it's great to read the play - not least because it's so enjoyable - but going to the theatre isn't an examination, and reading the play first shouldn't be compulsory. Worth remembering too that Shakespeare began as a popular playwright, and that's what he still is.

Fwiw, Andrew's review to me reads as perfectly well-argued and by no means unreasoned. (Link here). I disagree, although by no means with everything he says. And it's good to see someone striking out of the common opinion.

Troubador said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cameron Woodhead said...

Don't patronise me Alison. No one's forcing anyone to do anything. Theatre Virgin should be encouraged to read the play, and discouraged from using wikipedia or even watching TV *as a substitute for doing so* - not least because Theatre Virgin isn't just a theatregoer, but a theatre reviewer, and a desire for knowledge is indispensable to that ambition.

And bloody hell ... to the extent that mass culture embraces a hostility to sustained reading (only too evident in Theatre Virgin's attitude), I would have thought you'd be against that. My mistake.

I mean no disrespect to Andrew, by the way, though I don't respect his argument. It did make me wonder how much the "culture of production" at timeout might have influenced his opinion and the way he expressed it. There are some perfect publicity grabs in the review, and four stars seems very generous given his many reservations about the show.

Cameron Woodhead said...

No Troubador, I never saw Carillo Gantner as Lear. Can't say I'm sorry I missed it, though.

Anne-Marie said...

I've had a couple of Shakespeare experiences when I didn't know the story (and by that I mean, hadn't read the play). MND and maybe my first Hamlet. It's going back a while, but the impact of those incredible stories when you're seeing them for the first time can be remarkable. Or it can put you off theatre and Shakespeare for life.

I just wish that we had more productions that treat a Shakespeare tale like it's never been seen or told.

I don't think you should ever have to do reading homework before a show. We go to the theatre to see the story for the first time. But hell yes read up afterwards and read plays you have and haven't seen, read new ones and old ones. Then go back to Shakespeare because he wrote better than Wikipedia does. (But I do love a wiki summary - to refresh my memory , of course.)

I also remember as a 14-yr-old not being able to put R&J down because I didn't know how it was going to end. I miss the not knowing.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Troubador - removed that post for possible libel.

I'm not sure how I'm patronising you, Cameron, but you sure as hell are patronising TV. Here is someone who is not pretending to be a reviewer: he/she is an ordinary punter fascinated by theatre, absolutely up-front about being a beginner, and willing to blog about their experiences. I think there's a value in that, for us and for anybody reading. I don't see a skerrick of "hostility to sustained reading" in anything TV says, just a huge curiosity. But way to discourage your average punter from raising their head above the parapet.

Yes, I think that when one pontificates - and let's face it, we all love it - one should know of whereof one speaks. TV's claim is a bit more humble - to know what he/she experienced in the theatre. And that's fair enough. It's where we all begin.

Re Andrew's review, I think he's taken a very Fuhrmann approach. His opinion seems to me to be rather more influenced by the "culture of production" of poetry than by Time-Out. Let's not speculate on mysterious and unknown to us motivations behind a critic's views: it is never a good look. There are perfectly good motivations in what he actually said in the review. He liked the show, he said why he liked it, and that's his call.

Troubador said...

Hi Alison

while I think truth is usually a defence against libel, nonetheless, I respect your decision and apologise for the comment.

Alison Croggon said...

HI Troubador - remembering that the internet is international, and that laws vary wildly from place to place: generally speaking, truth is only a defence if it is also in the public interest.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I admit to being abrasive, but not patronising. In all honesty (a) there is no freaking parapet anymore; (b) we have no way of verifying whether TV is an ordinary punter or not; (c) I'm deeply suspicious of anyone whose "huge curiosity" about theatre doesn't instinctively extend to reading one of the richest and most vexing plays in Shakesperean drama; (d) I despise TV's claim to be writing about theatre "in words you can understand", as if theatre critics don't (it is very, very close to the false rationale behind Sh*t on Your Play); (e) TV is writing about his/her experience of theatre in a public forum, and that is, as far as I can see, the definition of a theatre reviewer; so it follows that (f) TV's opinions and attitudes are a perfectly legitimate subject of criticism.

I don't give a rat's if some anonymous blogger is offended by what I say. Put a face to a name, then sure, civility. And look, if TV is so flaky as to be discouraged by my comments (and I seriously doubt it) then, well, good riddance. You want to write in public, you have to be tough enough to endure some rough treatment, as we both know.

Cameron Woodhead said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alison Croggon said...

This thread is turning into a TN classic: things going off with centrifugal force, impossible to catch all the arguments. I've things to do & will just monitor gravely from a distance, stroking my beard. Maybe you should too, Cameron.

Alison Croggon said...

[Post removed because it repeated what was said in the earlier removed post]

Andrew Fuhrmann said...

Oh alright then, I’ll bite. Cameron, your out-of-the-blue implication that I’m a corrupted shill for the corporate interests of Time Out, my reward for positively reviewing a production you hated, is beyond "abrasive", but is typical of the general intolerance you exhibit for opinions deviating from your own. Come not between the dragon and his wrath, indeed.

I won’t add to my review, which is substantial enough (what’s this about a “culture of production”?), but, in summary, I was impressed with McDonald’s decision to privilege the Lear-Goneril-Regan relationship. I think it’s an interesting and original position which, yes, entertained me to tune of 4 glittery stars. McDonald obviously has a long way to go as a director, but I didn’t find the production design as baffling as other reviewers seem to have. My biggest problem with the production was a failure to really follow through on the insight and make the necessary deep cuts to the script, a failure of courage which upended the structure of the play.

Cameron Woodhead said...


You know I know how hard you have fought, and will no doubt continue to fight, to get the local branch of TimeOut to publish theatre reviews with any integrity at all. Or even theatre reviews period. So no, I don't think of you as a corrupted shill. You're one of the good guys.

Just yesterday I was tweeting about how without disagreement, there could be no artistic change, and there are many instances of opinions different to mine which I respect. This isn't one of them. I'll address my problems with your arguments on my blog or in comments over at your review. Already breaching an agreement with Alison by writing this one.

Anonymous said...

I’m bored. I’ll give things a chomp too, I think.

Did I ever mention the story of the food critic who walked into a restaurant whose food they didn’t like, and began calling all the customers idiots for not hating the food as they did, and not having read all the recipes either? I believe the police were called when, upon hearing a father ask his son whether he liked the ice cream for dessert or not, and the six year old son giving a positive answer, the critic threw the kid’s bowl across the room and berated him for daring to voice an opinion when he didn’t even show any inclination to know all the biological details of how a cow makes milk.

It always astonishes me how snobbish some people can be when the question of knowledge pops up. I may be wrong – and I’m sure I will be most vehemently and sarcastically informed of the fact if I am (and I look forward to watching a good mouth-foaming if that’s the case) – but wasn’t Shakespeare derided for not having a university education? He seems to have managed, though. Didn’t even bother to brush up his Greek before he died.

Books were made to be read, plays to be watched, and music to be listened to. Is it any wonder that the ‘punter’ feels the need to distinguish themselves as Joe Theatregoer when all the critics they see around them are sitting on top of kilometre-high stacks of books?

I too haven’t read King Lear, nor do I feel the need to at anytime in the near future, in much the same way that I if I were a movie critic I wouldn’t feel the need to read screenplays. Indeed, I’ve often noticed that reading (especially pre-reading) of a play can bias critics against new interpretations in performance.

Alison Croggon said...

Nothing about art is compulsory.

Chris Boyd said...

Can't imagine why you didn't see Carrillo's ("act better, Lear!") tour de force. October 1993. (Inexplicably referred to as McLear in my 'liary'.)

McDonald's production made me wince in the first seconds. (The hand-mirror of Damocles and the Cruella De Vil crown of hair. Ugh!)

Alison Croggon said...

"Act better, Lear"! Good one, Chris. 1993 was the beginning of my Decade of Theatre Exile, as I recall, so I never did see it; but that production is the stuff of legend. Still, sometimes I don't follow you. "Mirror of Damocles"? My knowledge of Greek myths is not so shabby, you know, but was forced to googling that one, and still got nowhere.

Chris Boyd said...

Damocles is de rigueur these days. Instead of a sword dangling above Lear's head, there was a hand-mirror. (Just as in Midnight Son, the opera about the Maria Korp murder, there was a noose of Damocles. Sorry, didn't mean to be a clever dick.)

@TV: Can I suggest that, instead of reading Lear, you get an unabridged audio book version? Such as the Arkangel one with Trevor Peacock. (It also sports David Tennant as Edgar.) I wanted to strangle Peacock as soon as he opened his gob, but, hell, you understand every word and idea. Unlike this MTC production which fails at such a basic level it's almost incomprehensible.

Anonymous said...

Contributing to this discussion anonymously is not good, I know, but to do otherwise could identify my sources and expose them to retribution. I don't want that. The theatre world, like Lear's, can be mad and spiteful and cruel. For the sake of honesty and fairness, though, I feel compelled to speak up.

Those who so roundly condemn "Rachel McDonald's" production of Queen Lear would do well to consider the possibility that no-one has and no-one ever will see Rachel McDonald's production of Queen Lear. The fact is Rachel McDonald's vision of Lear was thoroughly white-anted by the actions of other(s) who chose, so unprofessionally, to wield their power and compromise the realisation of that vision.

Critics who claim such fine command of nuances of text seem astonishingly blind when it comes to nuances of CONtext. Who chose to stage this production? Who enhanced their own power by choosing a relatively inexperienced stage director for what all agree is a ferociously difficult play to pull off successfully? Who wielded their power against the work of that director? And who ever imagined a Lear could thrive with a cast of only 10 on a stage designed for spectacle, yet down the road soon a cast of 16 will be romping through a surely less worthy Girl Friday by the same production company?

When an interim artistic direction triumvirate is allowed to stage a season of vanity productions then surely independent professional theatre watchers could be a little more alert to the here and now context of what ends up on stage.

If critics can't resist pointing the finger of blame, then we would all benefit if they chose their targets more accurately. Character assassination is self-indulgent, ugly and graceless and has no place in worthy criticism. And assassinating the character of the wrong target is an absolute outrage.

I am convinced (by the comments of others) that Rachel McDonald did begin her work with a strong and clear and challenging vision for this production. Critics and theatre-goers may have embraced that vision, or not. We will never know. It is right to expect that what we see on stage IS the best possible realisation of a director's vision. Which is why, in this case, those who made sure that couldn't happen should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

For the record, I have never met Rachel McDonald. I speak from information provided by some involved in the production who know such spiteful attacks on the director are utterly unjustifiable. And I speak because Rachel McDonald is forced to remain silent in these circumstances if she is to continue her career as a theatre director. As I hope she is allowed to. From what I've heard she has a great deal to offer us.

And for those yet to see the production, perhaps they might imagine as the houselights dim at the beginning of the performance a sign on the stage which reads "Once Upon A Time ...." What they are about to see played out is a fable, as are all theatre productions, all films, all novels. These are all stories of our time that speak to us about us. A theatre is not a museum, it is a forum to inspire the ongoing conversation about our world, our culture and the nature of our humanity. When critics forget that, again we are all the poorer.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - thanks for your post. Before other critics get their hackles up (I'm looking at you, Cameron) I'd like to say a couple of things. Firstly, that whether Rachel McDonald's initial vision was compromised or not, as director the buck stops with her, for good or ill. That goes with the job description: the director's job, which I wouldn't envy for one moment, is to manage all those complexities of people, politics and artistic vision that go into making a show. If McDonald had been talking about this idea for years, as was often said in pre-publicity, then any upcoming difficulties should have been clear too. They should have been managed, and the fact that they were not - however impossible those challenges may or may not have been - is part of the failure of the show. McDonald has to take responsibility for that.

I will say that unless McDonald's director's note was dictated by the unnamed others, she has to take responsibility for that, too. In the program she is credited as dramaturge and adaptor, and a lot of critique was directed towards those aspects of the play. Again, if McDonald adapted the play collectively with the cast, then it would have been better to say so in the program: otherwise she must take responsibility for those decisions.

It is always painful when a project fails (or is seen to fail). I can speak from personal experience here, as I've been on the other side of the fence. I understand your desire for redress. But I seriously believe that failures must be talked about as honestly as possible.

Here I'll speak for myself, although I'm it goes for my colleagues too: negative critique is not the same as "spite", nor an "attack". To analyse what I perceived the failures of this production to be, and to locate them in a failure of directorial artistic vision, is not "character assassination". I agree that theatre is not a museum. My critique was a response to a work which seemed blind to some of the present social realities that surrounded it, as much as to many of qualities in the play itself. To address King Lear is to address its history: if you don't want to deal with that, do another play. I know nothing of Rachel McDonald, have never met her nor seen any of her previous productions, and went to the show, as I think most people did, with a sense of anticipation. No critic can know, unless (as sometimes happens) they attend rehearsals, what the story of a process is: their job is to look at what occurs at the end of a process, just like the rest of the audience. Clearly this wasn't a happy one. I don't know anyone who doesn't think it a huge shame.

Alison Croggon said...

As a postscript, I'll just note that as well as the artistic triumvirate, the MTC board also made the administrative decision to permit an inexperienced director to attempt this Everest of plays. But my critique was about the show, not the artistic policy of the MTC.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Hear, hear, Alison. (Apologies for the snark in this thread. In my defence, I can only point to 7 shows in 4 days - including this one - followed by an attack of diarrhea. Not sure if they're related, but in any event, not a condition to be posting comments in! Sorry! I'm better now.)

Anonymous, critics are well aware of the problems in the "culture of production" at the MTC, but a review isn't the right place to discuss them. For an interesting conversation on the subject from earlier in the year, see the comments under my review of The Seed, a terrible failure directed by the talented Anne-Louise Sarks.

Anne Maree said...

Hi Anne-Marie
Agree with you absolutely. How would one stage Act 2 to enliven the text? I wondered about physically stylising it like Gloucester's fall from the cliff using Tom's scarf for support. Striking image.
Anne Maree

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Anon, from another anon. Finally, a swipe at Diva Theatre, whose multiple sins continue to go unpunished by critics and whose ego-driven abuses remain largely invisible to audiences. Designers, directors and entire casts (save one or two)hung out to dry while our "National Treasures" sail on unsullied. Wake up.

Anonymous said...

Alison - anonymous again (apologies but necessary)
Most of all, thank you that we have a forum to discuss these things. Cameron has apologised for the snark in this thread - and it was the snark I was responding to - the concern that a blood feast was brewing here. So I felt bound to put other thoughts on the table. Your reasoned response is appreciated - but I can't share your view a director must carry the can no matter what the circumstances. In an ideal world, maybe, but surely it must be the case that for example a Simon Phillips MTC production will be what Simon Phillips wants it to be but the same can't be claimed for directors with very considerably less clout.
However, moving on, Cameron continues his claim that The Seed was "a terrible failure". This is my point - when a critic transforms his/her opinion (however learned) into a fact. In the performance I saw, the full house was wholly engaged in The Seed and very appreciative in their applause of this "terrible failure" How ignorant they must be! Yes, I know there were problems on the critics night - problems possibly no director could have solved. Yes I know a production SHOULD be ready by critics night but sh*t happens. My plea is for criticism in the real world. Ideal world ideas are all very fine but that's not the world any of us live and work in. Passionate commentary, yes. Penetrating commentary, yes. We all benefit from that, and there has been a deal of that in this debate. It's the other stuff that raised my hackles. Woodhead's gross and superior tone the major offender for me. Every point he makes could have been well made without recourse to that nasty tone. It's just poor writing really and it is quite unnecessarily destructive.
That's just my opinion, not a fact, but I believe we deserve very much better than that from a major serious newspaper.

Clare said...

Whooeee! Thanks for the entertaining thread, all.

Geoffrey said...

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Cameron Woodhead said...


I'm pretty sure I know your identity from the above, and I'd suggest to you that your anonymity is, contra your assertion that you're 'protecting your sources', very much an act of cowardice. I'm not amused.

When I say that "The Seed was a terrible failure", it is not magically transformed into a "fact" rather than an "opinion" just because I don't put "I think that" before it. Of course I think it, or I wouldn't write it. Any fair-minded reader of average intelligence or above knows this, and can work out the "I think that" is IMPLIED, and has been omitted as a matter of style. Were I to put "I think that" before every subjective assessment in my reviews, that would indeed be bad writing.

As for my blog comments, they are hardly reflective of the way I write in The Age. Blog comments and newspaper articles are totally different forums, with different conventions: if I wrote theatre reviews for The Age with the same spontaneity and lack of restraint as I sometimes do on blogs, my editor would have a conniption.

To the extent that you're willing to conflate my blog comments and my newspaper writing, and tar them with the same brush without presenting any evidence at all, what you have written is false, defamatory, and has the potential to adversely affect my career. I'm not precious about it (indeed, if you are who I think you are I pity you) but Alison's trigger-finger has been a bit itchy in the libel department...

Anonymous said...

"The stage direction of Anne-Louise Sarks is wonderfully harmonious. She emphasises the sense of wonder and curiosity in the writing and makes a virtue of its conceits and poetic artifice. Sarks conjures up a world before our eyes."

Yes. The Australian thought The Seed a terrible failure too. Not.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Yes I'm aware of Chris Boyd's view, but "The stage direction of Anne-Louise Sarks is wonderfully harmonious" isn't a "fact", any more than "The Seed was a terrible failure" is a "fact". Their only facticity comes from embodying the subjective opinion of the author in each case. Yawn.

jane Winchester said...

This production of Queen Lear is a tragic waste of time, space and especially money. As a state theatre company, the MTC should not be permitted to play with tax payer's money in this way. This is not a production that is 'dividing' anyone. This is not some great work by misunderstood artists who are possibly ahead of their times. Given that Alison and Cameron care enough to voice their concerns about this 'tragedy', I am wondering what is preventing them from showing a united front? Of course one needs to read Lear to understand Lear. Alison, it's all very well to support Virgin Theatre Goer, but if you're teaching your kid to cross the road, it helps to first advise them of the necessity to walk across the road with their eyes open, and not in the middle of dream... This is not the time for splitting hairs about how one gets there. Shakespeare is not the 'same' as reviewing a film or a TV show, where someone argued something along the lines that a "reviewer ought not to be required to read Shakespeare to review Lear anymore than a film reviewer ought to be expected to read the script prior to reviewing a film..." Okay, there's being a 'snob' and then there's just being factual. The FACT is, the tools required to understand and review Lear, necessitate the READING of the play. It is wonderful to support any individuals approach to Shakespeare and classical theatre in general, but to not point out the necessity to READ THE TEXT does not really assist anyone's journey into theatre.
Playing 'low brow' merely risks the celebration of a narcissistic,individualistic society, whereby we declare ourselves to be equally as able as any 'genius', our views equally as interesting and applicable on any particular subject as those supremely educated in that subject, and it denies the rigorous nature of theatre in general.

The current production of Queen Lear at The MTC, is a living (if one could use that word to describe it!) example of such narcissism in action... gazing for ever into that pond, refusing to see or hear Echo, or anything beyond its own image, and falling head first into the pond.

Our major concern should be that our theatre's resources NEVER be permitted to be wasted in such a gross and obvious manner again!

Richard Pettifer said...

I refuse to apologise for posting again despite still having not sighted the centrepiece.

What I want to say, in my most whimsical voice, is: let us talk about theatre!

Brave Anon! Hail! A true Iagoian gesture, though not ignoble. I guess whatever resistence the concept was met with was not all that tangible, or manageable, either. Such is the way these things can roll.

Rather than spilling blood, we should be mourning a lost opportunity. What a blissful conceit! Nevin as Lear! So many questions! Can she truly play any role? Does power and authority cross genders with the fluency we imagine in our glass ceilingless world, where every second woman is a CEO and they have to fight to keep their wages down?? Or will she finally be denied authenticity from the one thing she cannot conquer - her body? Oh - but wait - that's Lear, isn't it??



Alison - attribution of authorship to the director is fair enough in a project like this, but blaming soley the director can allow all else to just wash their hands of any responsibility. I think it's fair enough, given that a director's compromise can often look like incompotence when it's put on stage, to at least ask the question, how did this happen?

Queen Lear has a real F*ck you conceit and without wanting to open up a whole other can of worms, I suggest there's a trend that male directors have a better record of pulling off this kind of brazen auteur theatre than female, by which I mean, theatre with a real ambit claim behind it.

All must do better! The damage from not fully understanding this "failure" or whatever it is could run deeper than just the winter. Perhaps the next female director with a bold vision will think twice! I would.

Therefore, I say, in my most whimsical, faux-feminist voice:

Long live Queen Lear!

P.S Hey Cameron - was it verbal diarrhea you were suffering from?? Just kidding - keep punching!! :)

Jane Winchester said...

Anonymous blogger who does so to 'protect' the identity of others... You "claim" to write anonymously so that you don't further contribute to the nasty world of character assasination etc... and yet, the very fact that you post 'anonymously' creates intrigue, and causes one to wonder "who is it -- what person or people- does anonymous write about?" In other words, you merely contribute to the subversive, destructive, world you claim not to want to be part of! Why don't you come out and show your hand, instead of keeping your little dagger behind your back? You THRIVE on the intrigue of the very 'stuff' you claim to abhore!

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Jane, our posts make nice twins :)

Anon probably feels a strong juducious pull to get involved with the argument, feeling that there's some injustice here, but doesn't want to compromise themselves?

I just wanted to take the 'Correction High Ground' and point out that Victoria does not have a state theatre company, and MTC was about 11% funded from state and federal grants last year, and it's just about been about that level since the 50's, as you can see from the annual report available on the company website.

So, not really much tax dollars to waste, especially when compared, say, to the money that goes into propping up coal in this state. And no matter how bad you think QL is, I reckon probably it does you less damage.

Chris Boyd said...

Like Mad Margaret "I can no longer hold me patient. Hear me, you wrangling pirates!"

Firstly, Richard. "I suggest there's a trend that male directors have a better record of pulling off this kind of brazen auteur theatre than female" is ignorant bullshit. Pull your head in, you clearly don't see enough to make this absurd judgement. (Otherwise, you're saying it to piss people off. Congratulations. You succeeded.)

Secondly, Jane Winchester. "As a state theatre company, the MTC should not be permitted to play with tax payer's money in this way." If the MTC were in fact a state theatre company and received more than ten percent of its revenue from the tax payer, then maybe. You should consider the MTC a commercial body that gets a few tax breaks by being a department of the University of Melbourne.

Thirdly, Cameron. I can't believe or forgive your appalling misuse of the word facticity. My Heidegger is rusty, my Sartre a little less so, but I do know that facticity is a word with very specific meaning in ontoloty and existential phenomenology. Damn this dumbing down of the language.

Fourthly, still Cameron, your ex-cathedra declaration that The Seed was a terrible failure can and will be read as a fact. You claim it with such force that any passing reader might imagine that the critics and audiences unanimously abhorred it.

That'll do for now. As you were...

Richard Pettifer said...

Chris - I wasn't trying to piss anyone off. I'm trying to talk about the play, and rationalise why things went wrong, if that is indeed what happened.

Please don't just lambast me, prove me wrong with examples if you want. I'm listening.

The above conversation, for example, has centred around Andrews and Kosky.

Chris Boyd said...

OK. I'll take your word on that. It looked to me like you were baiting Alison and being a shit-stirring troll.

The only contribution I'd like to make is that Lear, in my opinion, is a crap play (on a par with Othello) and not worth doing. There. I've said it. If I never see another Lear, too bad. (Whereas I have Richard III on one iPod, Hamlet on t'other. Embarrassing on shuffle play sometimes.)

Perhaps it will all make sense when I see a good one. (Like Otello the opera, which is hailed by Those In The Know, myself excluded, as Teh Best Opera Evah.)

Richard Pettifer said...

No Chris I wasn't - I think it's a pertinent point. It could be interpreted as misogynist, perhaps that stirred your reaction? I'm not sure.

To be clear, my argument is that the conceptual claim (obvious even without having seen the show, and followed through or no) of this production is a huge challenge to the text itself, and the only ones I can think of that have done that to Shakespeare locally on an epic scale, scope, and audacity, the only ones we've discussed here, are Kosky's Lear and Andrews WOTR. Both with what are generally acknowledged to be stupendous, albeit devisive, results, from what must have been huge gambles. They threw the book out. I genuinely welcome comparisons, particularly plays from female directors, if you have any. Or anyone. If not, that's a sad result, surely? And perhaps it makes this production's failure, if it is one, all the more heartbreaking.

I take the privelage to post on here very seriously. Sometimes I forgo rational argument for something aimed at more illustrative, impulsive or quasi-activist. I hope I can be afforded that license, as well as the license to get it wrong occasionally - after all, I'm not a critic.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Gowarn Boyd you can do better than that! I suspect you're just baiting me, but what the hey:

1) "I can't believe or forgive your appalling misuse of the word facticity."

Appalling misuse my arse. Facticity in common speech can mean something very similar to plain old "factuality". The sense should have been obvious (given the lack of phenomeno-ontological references) from context, at least to an intelligent reader like yourself. Or have I been wrong about you all this time...

2) Regarding "The Seed was a terrible failure" being read as a fact, rather than an opinion, I have already addressed it with a watertight argument. Frankly, it is *incapable* of being a fact, and I will not be held responsible for non-fair-minded readers (the axe-grinders, the artists whose shows I've slagged, the anonymous trolls, etc) putting tendentious interpretations on it. The author died a long while back, in that respect. And could there be an interpretation less true to life than imagining, because one critic says something, that all critics agree with it? Ha ha. Pull the other one.

Alison Croggon said...

Early morning Ms Croggon here, holding her coffee and goggling at the screen. You have all been busy overnight!

Chris, your judgment that Lear is a crap play is shared in one of Tolstoy's more hilarious essays. Doesn't mean that either you or Tolstoy are right. I disagree totally: it's a very brilliant piece of theatrical writing. I could go on about its very clever dramaturgy, for a start, but won't.

Richard, I do wish you'd go and read some feminism 101. You're perilously close to "mansplaining" feminism to me. (You can google that one). The failures - real or perceived - of a particular production doesn't mean that women can't direct radical theatre. Do you think that when you see a failed production by a man that therefore it reflects on all men? If you don't think that, don't say that about women. But just for kicks: think of Adena Jacobs's recent staging of Bergman's Persona. And one example of a woman director who sublimely reworked Shakespeare is Lee Lewis's bushfire version of Twelfth Night.

I'll be upfront about why I pointed the finger at the direction. I am not usually so specific, but I'm afraid McDonald's note in the program was so of a piece with what I saw on the stage that the conclusion was irresistible. That note was an embarrassing piece of work and it demonstrated no insight into either Lear nor gender politics. In pre-publicity interviews, which I also looked up after I saw the show, McDonald said blithely that casting Nevin as Lear was simply unproblematic which (to quote Kerryn Goldsworthy again) is enough to strike despair in any feminist's heart. The dramaturgy was hamfisted. I have no doubt that McDonald had a hard time in the rehearsal room (which was, as I said, a fairly predictable problem), but perhaps if she had had a compelling vision in the first place she might have been able to drive it through. I know this sounds harsh, but in the absence of some evidence of the "thinking through" I see as the major problem with this production - and here I mean in the surrounding material - I will keep thinking this. And yes, if we're pointing fingers of "blame" - which I wasn't, especially - I think they should be pointed at those responsible for the programming. Nevin wasn't the only one programming, and to my knowledge the MTC board is pretty hands on. Did no one ask the obvious questions?

.../more to come

Alison Croggon said...

Richard has a point, btw, about the "taxpayer's money" argument.

Jane, I wasn't anywhere saying that one shouldn't read Lear in order to understand it: of course I think it's desirable. I was saying (sigh) that's it's a PLAY and written for the stage, and ideally is best understood, like all plays, in action and three dimensions, where it is supposed to live. Yes, I really do think that. Why is reading a play thought so superior an act of understanding to hearing and seeing it? Socrates and Plato believed learning was an oral activity. It's as if the production of a play is merely "entertaining", while the "real" business of intellect occurs on the page. (This might explain, btw, why I think close reading of a text by a director is so important).

This is theatre. You shouldn't have to do homework before going to see it, even if it's Shakespeare. More basically, interest in art should be driven by desire, not duty. It's certainly the only thing that motivates me. But that's another and very long argument.

Finally: I don't have such an unforgiving attitude towards "failure" as, say, Cameron. Failure is the risk of doing anything. Even in the most ideal of circumstances, it's a possible outcome: a failure-proof season would be a dull thing indeed (and perhaps the desire for that explains some of the stuff we've seen at the MTC over the past decades). Fwiw, since The Seed seems to have come up here, I saw it a little later in the season. I had real problems with it too, but for very different reasons to Cameron. In my case, I thought the production exposed the weaknesses of the play itself.

Geoffrey said...

@ Richard. Did you see Marion Potts' production of King Lear for Bell Shakespeare?

It is odd that Marion's production (which I adored) is not discussed here – even by comparison. Well might it have divided the critics, but it does the art a great disservice to render it invisible.

Geoffrey said...

Having said that, I am not in a position to discuss them both because I haven't seen Queen Nevin. But based on this thread, I've had a peak at ticket availability and I think I will go.

Geoffrey said...


Alison Croggon said...

Great, Geoffrey. I think you should go. I wasn't enamoured of Marion Potts's production, but that wasn't because of the direction, which I liked a lot. Thanks for bringing it up. My review here.

Geoffrey said...

... and here is mine (he typed, hoping not to incur the "culture of production" wrath):

Alison Croggon said...

I can only presume that Cameron is reading Adorno.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

To clarify: I think it would have been far more interesting if Nevin had simply played Lear as a man. It's a favourite conceit of Shakespeare's and if Nevin is as good an actor as most people seem to think, though I don't see it (very good, yes; breathtaking, not in my experience, not in the way that, say, Judy Davis is breathtaking) then it should be child's play for her. So to speak.

One of my problems with changing the Lear character's gender is that it's such an anachronism. One of the main things the play's about is the keeping of social order via the orderly passing-on of power and property through such things as legitimacy and carefully chosen sons-in-law. To deny that this was a gendered operation in the sort of world these characters inhabit is to fail to understand not only feminism but history itself.

I'm NOT arguing that plays can't be set in different eras from the ones in which they first appeared -- I loved the sound of the Ralph Fiennes/Vanessa Redgrave Coriolanus, which I managed to fail to see -- but I am arguing that to do so in such a way as to make a dog's breakfast of one of the play's main themes is probably a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all who pointed out my lack of understanding regarding our 'state' theatre company. This was, I fully admit, an 'assumption' of mine, based on not having researched the actual structure of the MTC's finances, and making assumptions about the meaning of 'state' theatre company. And that's my argument about 'reading' Shakespeare. Yes, in his day, it was common to not read Shakespeare, and I acknowledge the oral tradition of other 'great' writers/philosophers etc... However, when one considers the how much our language differs now- Shakespeare's English is hardly common and as far as the Greeks go, well, I have to admit that I'd gain little from direct oral versions of these works without an excellent translation.
I am not putting Shakespeare on some great pedestal, but I think it's safe to say that he's not 'easily understood' by most people at first listening. While it was popularist theatre in his day, we don't live like that, speak like that, think like that, anymore. As a simple analogy, having not grown up in Melbourne, I don't understand AFL. I've lived here for 20 years, and sat through more matches at the MCG than I care to mention. I am sure I'd enjoy the game if I took the trouble to understand its rules; if I had the foggiest notion of what it was everyone was getting so excited about! See- it's just not my 'language', hence a more formal understanding is necessary. I most certainly wouldn't be a football critic- blog or otherwise... There are some things readily understood to me without reading about them, researching them. But when you're looking at an entire society that still believed the earth was flat, I don't think it's actual true that one can grasp the full content of what one is watching, without perhaps, first reading the play. It's not about "Shakespeare". I have taken the time to read koori plays, research their history and meaning, prior to seeing them, because I know that I will be viewing a play about a culture I know little about. I must go and spend the rest of the day reading the rules of AFL... Now, being a theatre lover, but not working in the theatre industry, I have no problem with taking advice from Alison, Cameron, Richard, Chris and whoever else knows more than I do. And that's my point. My opinion is often uninformed, and dthat's the reason I read Alison's blog. Otherwise, I'd just set up my own 'theatrenotes'... No doubt I could! But would anyone read it? And if they did, would they learn anything? I might set up an AFL blog instead...

Geoffrey said...

Again, without having seen this production yet, I am curious as to why you'd stop at a 'Queen Lear' and not change the gender of her children?

How much more sense might the gender-f*ck have made if she had sons instead of daughters?

The gender appropriation ripple affect through the rest of the cast's gender would have been interesting, then, too. Or not.

Jane Winchester said...

I am not sure why that comment went up as 'anonymous'. Karma? Not hitting the right button! It was mine...

Pigot said...


What I find most fascinating about this discussion is that it seems to be more about criticism, critics particular egos and social media bombast than it does about the theatre.

Geoffrey said...

@Pigot: How can you draw that conclusion? The discussion is about, because of, and inspired by the Theatre, surely.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Some thoughts.

1) Gender-blind and cross-gender Shakespearean performance have been directed with great acuity and vision by women directors here: Marion Potts' playful, and somewhat Sapphic, adaptation of Venus and Adonis leaps to mind, and just months ago a powerful all-female Romeo and Juliet directed by the talented Zoey Dawson (who also starred in The Economist, as Anders Breivik, no less). Any suggestion that we need male "genius" to pull it off is ignorant sexist bullshit of the worst kind.

2) Gender and history are woven into Lear at a very deep level, and Alison's original argument that the dramaturgy of Queen Lear is superficial and fails to address the many implications of changing Lear from King to Queen (a "domino effect" through the play, as she describes it) is spot on.

3) Having said that, one of the joys of King Lear is its hermeneutic richness, so I'm reluctant to embrace the *unqualified* idea that it would have been "much better" to have Nevin playing Lear as a man. In practice though, trusting to the talent of your lead actress, and to an audience's ability to imagine what has to be imagined, worked in Benedict Andrews' The Wars of the Roses, and might have done so here.

4) I would also point out that Kerryn Goldsworthy sees patriarchy in just about everything. Even the seemingly non-gendered idea of "literary merit" is implicitly biased against women, in her view. This has been true (see eg. Schopenhauer's rancidly chauvinistic essay On Women) and for people like Richard Pettifer, remains so. I'm not convinced it is the reason for gender inequity in literature (or theatre) today: the actual analysis and depth of the statistics are not of sufficient rigor to exclude alternative, and far more complex, explanations. Still, conspiracy theories are quite attractive, I confess.

5) If a theatrical failure nevertheless bears fruit in terms of artistic development or interesting new ideas, I have all the time in the world for it. It's wasteful or easily avoidable failure, or failure that is so dire as to discourage theatregoers from attending, that brings out my unforgiving side. As it should.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

'I would also point out that Kerryn Goldsworthy sees patriarchy in just about everything.'

Not everything. But many things, yes.

Geoffrey said...

"Hermeneutic". What a fantastic word!

Brendan McCallum said...

*bing* Now I got me some popcorn, please carry on everyone.

Richard Pettifer said...

Sigh. I think I was not far from mansplaining either (no need to google that one). For the record, I don't pretend to be a feminist scholar. Rather, the conversation has madely acutely aware of my many shortcomings.

Thanks for your examples, all. And nice review Geoffrey - I missed it sadly. The superlatives are there, but I don't see from your review how the entire company's fortunes were staked on it, although you mention this. And I have never heard people speak so whistfully or mythologically about this or the other productions mentioned as with the wunderkind productions.

Dismissing patriarchy is surely just a way to avoid it. Of course we have a patriarchy. It is broadly acknowledged and even welcomed. And I feel like transforming my statement to "women can't direct radical theatre" is really a bit far from anything I have said.

But I am leaving that unpopular argument now I think - guessing this is best left to others to whom it is a personal mission, and I will only ever dilute their arguments or set myself up as a target.

Kerryn, I think your reading of the play is interesting, and I would add the common reading that the handing down of power to the three sisters is what causes the rupture in the first place. i.e Lear doesn't have a son - mayhem ensues. I agree it feels somewhat anachronistic to simply change Lear's gender, looking at it from this perspective. At the risk of using terms I have proven myself unqualified to use, maybe it would make sense in a society that is matriarchal?

But anyway!

Paul K said...

This has been interesting...

I've always thought Lear was an interesting exploration of the special relationships fathers have with their daugters as compared to their sons (and vice versa, of course). To change it to a mother must necessarily change the dynamic of those relationships and when I saw this announced I wasn't convinced the text would support it. To say nothing about the broader ideas of matriarchal power, it was always the individual relationships that concerned me about it.

Paul K said...

Daughters, ofc. Damned 'h' key.

Geoffrey said...

Thanks Richard (I think).

The context of Marion Potts's production – in Melbourne particularly – was an additional tension her 'King Lear' had to bear. In February of 2010 (her production arrived in Melbourne in June 2010), it was announced that she would be the new AD of Malthouse. There were certainly people who were unfamiliar with her work keen to experience her style and vision for especially this play.

Apart from that, every act of creating art at this level is reputational – not exclusively certainly. Companies, too, need to qualify their funding. I thought the production was incredibly risky given those and other circumstances.

It was also very timely because it came at a time when the industry was debating the role of women in positions of artistic leadership. That was also something I felt very strongly arrived with the production – whether anyone intended it did or not.

And if Rachel MacDonald's production has been sabotaged to the extent that the Anon commenter suggests, then that is a great shame. But I am off to see it this week and will see for myself.

Zane Trow said... are no decent actors in Australia in wheelchairs??? So we have get someone to pretend????

Pathetic. Really.

Anonymous said...

@Anon (Kerryn)
"I am not putting Shakespeare on some great pedestal, but I think it's safe to say that he's not 'easily understood' by most people at first listening. While it was popularist theatre in his day, we don't live like that, speak like that, think like that, anymore."

No not easily understood today but it's not correct to describe Shakespeare's productions as popularist in their day. Popular yes, popularist no. The words have *very* different meanings. The temptation to name a slew of recent political figures, musicians, writers, theatre-makers as a) popularist or b) popular (as a result of their great skill and/or difference from the pack rather than cynical appeal to LCD button pushing) will be resisted but if I can offer one uncontroversial (I hope) example: Nivarana ended up a very popular music act in the 90's yet they, like many other bands in Seattle went out of their way to detune and de-construct melody which was the anti-thesis of pop music at the time. Became a just another pop meme at the hands of Silverchair but that's a whole 'nother story.

As for you flat-Earth-believers comment how is that in any way germaine to anything being discussed? So what if the extent of their world was a land mass surrounded by ocean?!

Give the AFL rules a read if you like but it wont get you home. You need the kind of cult programming from a young age to really have AFL in your blood to the extent you can identify with the tribulations of grown men running around in shorts. Even the experts and umpires have a merry time changing their interpretation of the rules from week to week... it's a subtle thing constantly shifting as players and coaches take advantage of the current readings to gain a 1% advantage and the rule makers try to keep up. Better that you have an expert on hand to explain things in their context. It's all about context.

Alison Croggon said...

*Doubletake* Wheelchair? I think that was primarily to distinguish Albany from Oswald in the doubling. (Both were played by Greg Stone). I'm not sure it really has anything to do with ablism.

Zane Trow said...

"I'm not sure it really has anything to do with ablism...."

Riiiiight. Of course, silly me. LOL.

Anonymous said...

Thanks all. This was a great read.
My favourite part was when the critics started arguing over whose opinion mattered more. Brilliant.
(...although Cameron Woodhead talking about his runny poo was certainly a low point)

And if you didn't shudder when you turned the page of the MTC Season Brochure to see Nevin as Lear (in a year she co-programmed) you should be ashamed of yourself. What did you THINK was going to happen?

As if this inexperienced director had any power in this situation. Come on. Wake up.

-Another Anon

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Geoffrey, No barbed comment meant at all - just wanted to delve a little deeper in the contesxt of this conversation.

I'm not sure that the contextual matters you outline are enough to elevate the gamble of the production to a level of the others mentioned. While theatrical risk can take into account off-stage stuff, I was interested more in what the production did for theatre that changed its rules or broke new ground.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Other Anon

People are speaking as if Rachel McDonald was forced to do this show at gunpoint. Was she? If she found herself so powerless, why did she not withdraw from the project? I would have. The fact is also that if it had been a stunning success, she would have been given full credit as a director. Is that also unfair?

Here's the thing: what goes on in a rehearsal room isn't any of a critic's business. Permitting animus or gossip to influence one's review of a performance is also an absolute nono, as far as I'm concerned. Nothing that has been said convinces me that the failure was not in the direction. Why that failure occurred - and here I'm thinking about massive institutional failure - is actually a different question. It's not about what I or anyone else saw and responded to on stage that night.

Anonymous said...

That's 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back. I was referred to this thread by an actor friend. He describes it as "the reason theatre sucks". I agree.

Alison Croggon said...

You know a thread has taken on an independent life when it starts getting metacommentary and visitors with popcorn. Soon this thread will start going to the theatre on its own.

For all the (often confused & confusing) passion on view here, I will say that there's a level of interest and investment that is vastly preferable to the deathly silence that used to greet everything in Melbourne. That sucked more than anything else.

Unknown said...

Having seen this show a couple of nights ago, unlike Woodhead I certainly didn't smirk, indeed I found some scenes very moving--the cursing of the daughters, Lear and Gloucester at Dover, and the reconciliation with Cordelia, which is not to say they couldn't have been better if they had been staged better. At the actors' Q and A afterwards the first question was point blank: what did they think of the director's "concept"? They all said it was not their job to question or judge a director's vision, but to serve it to the best of their abilities. It was interesting to hear the most experienced actors say McDonald had presented unique challenges for them--making them do most scenes in blinding side light so that it was never possible to see the face of the actor placed on the far side of the stage to whom they were meant to be interacting. It sounds hideous to me, but they all spoke thoughtfully and respectfully and with no criticism. I wish "anonymous" who implies so some dark plot was afoot to undermine the director had heard them. Why a group of actors would seek to derail a production in which they have to go out and face the audience every night makes no sense. Knowing Woodhead, Croggon and Boyle rarely agree, the fact that all feel the blame lies squarely at McDonald's feet seems like a fair cop.

Chris Boyd said...

Let's get this straight... Anon [9:39 AM, July 19, 2012] read all this -- post and hundred-plus comments -- in 20 minutes? All 17,000 words of it? Awesome!

I guess I should be grateful that Robert Fletcher didn't make a worse piss-spelling of my name. (And, bless him, at least he had the balls to use his own name!)

Geoffrey said...

Well it certainly makes a nice change for an actor to blame a review and a comments thread as being the reason "theatre sucks". Generally it's because they're no good at it and everyone knows but doesn't have the heart to tell them to their face.

Unknown said...

Sorry Mr. Boyd, my apologies. It sounds like even a few days later the show I saw had improved on what you saw opening night. This is one I might re-visit towards the end of the run to see what changes/improvements the actors have managed to make.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Erm ... wideeyedpupil, I didn't say anything about putting Shakespeare on a pedestal, and I would scorn to post a blog comment anonymously. As Lolita said to Humbert Humbert, I think you must be getting me mixed up with some other fast little article.

Subscriber said...

I have four tickets to this tuesday's July 24 6.30 performance. Very likely not to go based on the poor reviews; couldn't even tempt others to stay til interval. Is it really that bad that I shouldn't waste my time???? Does anyone want four free tickets?!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Subscriber: I'd always encourage people to go & make up their own minds. You might find yourself disagreeing with all the critics.

Subscriber said...

Thanks Alison, maybe I will go on my own til 8pm/interval at least just to see what the fuss is. Very sad about this - I have seen Lear at Malthouse and also the Kosky version. Was really thinking this would be special.

Thinking of the fall from power theme - is anyone watching 'Boss' on Foxtel - starring Kelsey Grammar, about the corrupt chicago mayor with a degenerative brain disease he is trying to hide? Very bleak, but looks promising after 2 episodes. Made me think of Lear - great idea to use the loss of physical/mental control.

Chris Boyd said...

Fletch (if I may be so bold) I reckon you could detect an improvement between pre- and post-interval at the first performance, so I wouldn't be surprised if the show has improved appreciably. Which is why I'd say to the subscriber yes, do go. (And bail at interval if you're feeling like your eyes are being gouged out.)

Subscriber said...

Starting to wonder if Alison and Chris are feeling a litle guilty about the bad reviews and so are suggesting we still go for a 3 hour experience. Would you recommend it to your friends? No, presumably.

Though, maybe, surely there must have been some improvements after such an all round critical thrashing. Robyn + Lear should have = amazing. Such a great tragedy. If I can't give the tickets away I think I will still go as it seems such a waste...can't be much worse than the Kosky production?! At least that was 'different'.

Alison Croggon said...

Guilty? Not at all. The fact is that you can sit to someone in the theatre & both walk out with vastly differing responses. If you've already paid for those tickets, I'd use them. At the very least, you can say you were there: and theatre is all about being there.

Geoffrey said...

Yes "Subscriber". At the very least you'll have three less friends.

Besides, as a "Subscriber", I am sure this won't be the first time you've been disappointed ... unless you didn't book for "Rockabye" or "Dead Man's Cellphone".

Unknown said...

Subscriber, I would say definitely go, and with an open mind. Not all critics have been so harsh--Kate Herbert in the Herald Sun (and a few other theatre bloggers) felt much as I did--a brilliant performance by Nevin, several excellent support performances, but a flawed production that may well improve. I'd take with a grain of salt any comments from people who haven't seen the show.

AB said...

Too funny! If the point of theatre is in part to provoke thought and discussion, it clearly did that.
Hey, I enjoyed it. Agree Cordelia not properly fleshed out and so seemed wishy washy, but I thought Robin Nevin was terrific and Gloucester and Kent also.
Oh and I DID cry:)

Anonymous said...

My favorite moment thus far is when Cameron writes that the negative statements written about him have "the potential to adversely affect my career". Imagine that. Of course that's completely different to the comments he regularly serves up about artists and their work, they have no affect at all.

Cameron Woodhead said...

There's a crucial difference Anon. My reviews respect the law of defamation. If the anonymous commenter is who I think it is, the comment was malicious, motivated by a totally unprofessional animus at negative reviews I've written of the commenter's work.

That's never the case with me when I write opinions of theatre I've seen. My personal feelings about the artists do not intrude. It's all about the art.

That said, my reviews are fair game. Be as negative as you like about them, as long as you've read them and base your opinions on what you've read.

Samsara said...

In defense of Cameron (even though he looks like he is coping quite well on his own), The Seed sucked. You can take that as fact or opinion. Yes the play was flawed, but the direction was unfocussed and the design was confused. And yes, it is ALWAYS the director's fault. That is there job - to have a vision and ensure that all elements and collaborators unite within that vision. If they cannot unite the team or articulate the vision clearly through the range of mediums that are used in the creation of theatre, then they are not good at there job and deserve appropriate performance reviews (i.e. criticism).

The MTC have made a laudable attempt to support emerging female directors, but in trying to idiot proof them, they are unwittingly sabotaging them. Queen Lear was always destined to be magnificent or appalling. An emerging director given a lead actor who has soooo much more experience in directing as well as acting, and a designer who insists on having sole control over the choice of LD. On paper that probably looked like excellent risk management, but was always high risk of failure if the director wasn't strong enough.

Samsara said...

Oops. their x2. sorry.

Anonymous said...

No, Cameron, you have never reviewed my work. I'm not part of the theatre world, but very much a friend and admirer of what it struggles to achieve. My personal feelings about you did not intrude on my opinion of the quality of your writing. It isn't your opions I find distressing, it is HOW you choose to express them. As you say - it's all about the art.

Unknown said...

Saw this last night and loved it. Well, loved the acting from almost all. My guess is there has been a lot of coaching backstage from one Great Actress to the ones who got panned in the reviews. Everyone was on their game, despite the weird set and the strange direction. Anyway, my two cents worth!

Alison Croggon said...

Good to hear, Unknown. A lot can change from opening night.

Cameron Woodhead said...

One of the distinctive qualities we love about theatre.

Don't believe you Anon. However, I make no apologies for the way I write. A critic must write what they think and feel without reservation. Artists have *plenty* of people willing to be diplomatic about their endeavours.

I note that artists almost never complain if a critic's rhetorical and literary gifts are deployed in praise of their work. Yet it is those same gifts that are attacked when a failure is being described and analysed ... If you can't see why your position is hypocritical, you're not really a friend of the theatre at all.

Anonymous said...

CW... do you have to be so pompous. You're like a character from a bad English play.

Geoffrey said...

Great Anon! Now you're going to get us all reminded about the Comments Policy!

Alison Croggon said...

How right you are, Geoffrey! (Puts on Dame Slap costume). Perhaps Cameron and Anon can take their argument to Cameron's blog. Meanwhile, let's avoid ad hominems etc, because they generate more heat than light.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Ha! Thanks for redirecting trolls to my blog, Alison.
*refuels flame thrower*
*arms acid grenades*

Richard Pettifer said...

Dear Alison,

Saw that play. Audience were making plenty of noise in the foyer. Big clap at the end.

Gonna try to avoid waffle here. soz

Reckon you guys misread the design... couple of elements of cabaret and burlesque in the costumes tapped into that performance tradition and its gender baggage, continuing on from some of RM's opera work to my understanding. Chains are a simple imprisonment metaphor, bring a bit of medieval styling as well as a bondage/S&M dominance thing, other than that just a good tactile playground. Problems with the acting but that's usual for Shakespeare in 6 weeks, (reckon RM doesn't know how to paper over it like some other directors do, her space gives the actors nowhere to hide). Loved the huge yonic well and the phallus-cage. Super-transformative set, I felt like objects/characters/words changed meaning and function all the time, hard to keep up. The middle-eastern thing was unusual and I think came from an analogy of the gore of the Gloucester-gouge = Al-Queada decapitation videos, ok its a bit unusual but not a crazy link as the stereotype is that middle-eastern societies = women oppressed. The remoulding of Kent as a chef should titillate all hospitality workers who have ever felt like second-class citizens, many of whom, yes, are young also and thus doubly oppressed as they are forced to feed wine to Croalla-de-ville biddys like the wined-up Lear before she goes nuts, but you have to admit it all comes together masterfully in the gloucester gouge with the executioners in brown aprons and turbans, looking like strange Arabian chefs in an eye resteraunt eyeing off their next cut.

Lynchpin is Robyn's performance and she doesn't quite make it for me but then again everyone else who has played the role I've seen has had their life rehearsing for it - she had just 8 years. And to watch her struggle with it was its own metaphor.

If you read the production as a feminist argument that riffs across a vast range of material to mount a furious, multi-faceted and renegade attack on social order and hegemony, I think it works fine and is not bogus at all. It's a bit of a dart board and it doesn't always feel good and its targets are huge. But it's risky and I would ask nothing less from any director. It seems an agressive and agitational, but overall fair enough response to Lear.

Richard Pettifer said...

I will grant that it falls short of its full argument, and I wonder if it did need something completely insane like a giant flashing dildo on stage the whole time or something maybe Kosky or Andrews do that. Just to ram the point home. It was probably lacking a big f*ck-you like that to bring the audience together in shock. If you're gonna attack the dominant structure, force is a neccessary component. It's a similar situation to Julian Meyrick's production of The Birthday Party, which also contained an extended and clear (to the director at the very least, but I felt it) attack which but was totally lost on Miss TN if I remember correctly.

Perhaps another panel discussion is in order, folks? I'll talk to the Wheeler Centre.

Now before you go nuts and it's out with my eyes, gentle reminder that I don't know anything about theatre. I am a amateur. I have never studied it - I have been going on stages sometimes lately by accident and probably to everybody's detriment. These are just ideas and I felt like I should say them because I feel accountable to the people in this lengthy discussion. I feel like the critics have found some solidarity and that's cool, no-one should die alone. But any vitriol discourages others from conversation about theatre which is a terrible result b/c theatre is 4 every1. Happy to answer comments or be corrected. So far I've found all this a bit stressful, though certainly not without reward.

And anyone who doubts the civility of said critics will do well to note that they were too polite to point out my repeated misspelling of the word 'feminism' earlier whilst attempting a feminist argument. Truly gracious.

Subscriber, no excuse for not going to theatre when you have paid for a ticket especially not based on anything said here, which would surely make you WANT to go? Unless you don't like thought and conversation. I promise you it is totes awesome.

Alison Croggon said...

Glad you went to see it, Richard. Just one comment: "The middle-eastern thing was unusual and I think came from an analogy of the gore of the Gloucester-gouge = Al-Queada decapitation videos, ok its a bit unusual but not a crazy link as the stereotype is that middle-eastern societies = women oppressed."

Nobody who knows anything about what's going on in Egypt or anywhere else in the ME will deny that women suffer under fundamentalist religious rule. However, if the design was referencing the ME as a symbol of misogyny, it's frankly pretty offensive: cherry-picking/appropriating emblems of non-western cultures just to reinforce our stereotypes about them is way off. Fwiw, I don't think the design is referencing the Ottoman Empire merely to reinforce the subtext of misogyny and violence, but maybe you're right and it is, in which case my amber lights go red.

Even without the idea of misogyny, this kind of cultural referencing is something that has to be thought through. It's an issue that hasn't been raised so far in the discussion, but I had real problems with the "world building", as we call it in fantasyland. (McDonald herself says the design creates something like a "science fiction world" in her note, so this isn't coming from left field: and here I'll put on my fantasy-writing hat.) Here's a post which talks about this issue in terms of fantasy. As the writer says, "combine the geeky love of superficiality, the thoughtless impulse to seize on “awesome” things that look or sound cool, and what you get will always be a disaster of stereotypes, fucking awful research, and an absolute lack of giving-a-shit that they’re writing about a real culture lived by real people." Applies to theatre too.

Richard Pettifer said...

I would agree that the analogy is pretty sledgehammer, if its there.

On the other hand, the analogy between one of history's most shocking theatre scenes and the recent terrorist counterparts is interesting.

Possible that's all it was, and I just misread it?

Alison Croggon said...

I personally suspect "ooo, shiny things!" syndrome. But that's because the design made no sense to me.

John Withers said...

Alison, I whole-heartedly agreed with your response to Julian Meyrick's whine in The Australian

I think Meyrick has now become the go to whinger for the arts sector to the point where his number must be on speed dial for journalists wanting to beef up an ooh-aah arts story.

Let the debate continue!

Unknown said...

Let the debate continue indeed! Especially from those who have bothered to see the play...was at this afternoon's matinee, full house, rapt attention, cheers at the curtain call, the full bit. Am still reeling a bit from Ms Nevin's power and skill. Best I've ever seen, in my untrained opinion. And just when I thought most blog/critics agreed about the production, I stumble across this:
So let diversity reign!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, John and Unknown. Yes, what is really crucial is a range of responses - no one is "right", you can just make more or less interesting arguments. I remember, with a shudder, when the most a production could hope for was about three reviews. And as a long shot, if you disagreed, a Letter to the Editor, which was very seldom published. That wasn't healthy at ALL, although from the point of view of some theatre companies, it was a lot more controllable. But that's another story...

Which is not to say that things couldn't be better. Of course they could. But they have been a lot worse.

Here's some live links, for those not too exhausted to follow them up: Julian Meyrick's bizzarre attack on the blogosphere, and my response.

And also Simon Parris's review.

Anonymous said...

paywall grr

Chris Boyd said...

Julian Meyrick is the media equivalent of a vexatious litigant. :D

Geoffrey said...

Google will get you past the pesky paywall Anon – which is why Rupert wanted to remove News Ltd content from Google all those months ago.

Anonymous said...

@G not any more (maybe from mobile devide)

Geoffrey said...

Worked for me from my laptop again just now.

Anne-Marie said...

Insomnia led me to a 4am catch up read. Thank you everyone. I had a good laugh, rolled my eyes and cheered, then drifted back to sleep knowing that people really do care about another ho-hum show at the MTC, but are far more interested in what a mob of theatre-going writers (and folk who know better than theatre-going writers) have to say about it.


"You guys misread the design", but I dismissed that opinion at the FIRST pissmelling of feminism. (But I am a mere girl who can't possibly understand the manly world of theatre.)

Cameron's egs of awesome women who have created incredible theatre using Shakespeare.

The popcorn break.

The wheelchair casting segue.

Some new words from Chris and Cameron that I will do my best to use.

Brave anon's "you-don't-know-who-I am" taunt.

The Shakepeare-AFL analogy.

Mention of Marion P's Lear, which I really liked. (And I thought The Seed failed the script miserably.)

Alison's reminder that there is so much more to Melbourne theatre than the MTC and that reviewers have seen the great stuff, so have no interest in celebrating the mediocre and the crap.

Julian's rant about the unholy "blogosphere" and Alison's response (and thanks for the mention).

So long-live the blogosphere!

And if you really want to see theatre from the perspective of the devil-horned and bitter reviewers, see more theatre and make up your own mind.

BUT a final hooray for Rachel McDonald for NOT getting involved in such a hoo ha.

Anonymous said...

And now for the Sydney blogger's opinions...Diana Simmonds at Stage Noise has written a very good piece.

Richard Pettifer said...

Anne-Marie - apologies for using the word "guys". That was silly of me.