Image credit: Jeff Busby

For my money, King Lear is the problem child of Shakespeare’s major tragedies. While the other three of the ‘Big Four’ – Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth – are resolved in a deeply cathartic manner, Lear’s relentless bleakness stymies the audience’s relief at every turn. If not handled with subtlety, the play’s hopelessness can become suffocating.

In one of the tensest first acts in theatre, Shakespeare cross-cuts between Lear, the ailing king who botches the attempt to distribute his kingdom, and Edmund, illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, who attempts to disgrace his unjustly privileged brother Edgar. Like Shakespeare’s other major tragedies, King Lear charts the destruction of a magnetic personality. But unlike Othello, for example – which features at least one functional human relationship – Lear’s characters are doomed to remain isolated from one another until immediately before their deaths.

The major drawcard of the MTC’s Queen Lear, of course, is that it switches the sex of its protagonist to female. The fall from grace of Lear (Robyn Nevin) begins swiftly, as her adored daughter Cordelia (Alexandra Schepisi) fails to express any sign of daughterly subservience. Lear’s ravenous thirst for affection blinds her to the machinations of daughters Regan (Belinda McClory) and Goneril (Genevieve Picot), both of whom do good work here as ice-cold schemers.

I admit that I had my doubts when the great Robyn Nevin emerged looking like Cruella de Vil, with dashes of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Luckily, the garish entrance is deceptive. Nevin needs a vast canvas to display her gifts, and the play’s first half certainly gives her that. Her voice cracks to an enraged whisper as her hold on power crumbles, teetering between ferocity and wounded humility. After becoming resigned to the humiliating reduction to vassal status in her own kingdom, Lear’s inner fire dissipates almost instantaneously. When expressing Lear’s utter isolation on the storm-ravaged heath, Nevin makes a frightening transformation from commanding monarch to wild-eyed wreck, somehow managing to add years to her character’s age in seconds.

Given the play’s universal themes of ageing, declining power, familial conflict and fear of desertion, recasting Lear as a woman works. While Shakespeare’s other major tragedies are heavily based on anxieties surrounding masculinity, Lear seems more deeply concerned with the corrosive effects of ageing on any powerful individual’s sense of control over others. Lear’s maleness is less important than the fact of his physical and mental decline.

Casting a woman as Lear also lends extra punch to the toxic family conflict lurking at the play’s core. When cursing Goneril’s insubordination, for example, Lear urges the gods to ‘Into her womb convey sterility/Dry up in her the organs of increase.’ In the original play, the king’s curse on his daughter’s fertility is in keeping with the patriarchal domination that underwrites his position. Yet in Queen Lear, this act becomes an intensely personal violation of the mother–daughter bond. Given this undercurrent of betrayal to work with, Nevin is at her most sublime when facing off against her two appalling daughters. The scenes with the three women on stage, each angling to wound the others, are scorchingly cruel.

There are several other highlights. Kent (Robert Menzies), for example, as the Queen’s exiled servant, manages to be both deeply anguished and deliciously funny. (If you’re in a hurry to make an enemy, calling him an ‘Eater of broken meats’ or ‘Thou whoreson zed – thou unnecessary letter!’ should do the trick.)

Edmund, the master orchestrator of the play’s mayhem, is played with surprising sensitivity by David Paterson, who wisely resists all moustache-twirling ‘evil mastermind’ clichés. His superbly delivered appeal to the audience’s compassion (‘Why bastard? Wherefore base?’) equip this fascinating character with a palpable sense of outraged humanity. Although Edmund goes on to manipulate others and commit atrocities, Paterson vividly conveys the persuasive force of his grievances.

Not all of the cast members are this good. Lumbering apelike around the stage, Rohan Nichol’s muscular and vacant Edgar comes across like Encino Man starring in a Bonds commercial. Yet it is Alexandra Schepisi’s Cordelia who is the biggest flaw in the tapestry. As the only person who refuses to indulge in hypocrisy, purity is the key to her character. Alexandra Schepisi’s decision to deliver her lines in deepest Strine, which was perhaps intended to make her character seem more grounded and realistic – undercuts the solemn dignity of her role.

On a technical note, the MTC’s amplification made for some odd mixes. Actors’ voices often appeared disembodied, as muttered lines from the rear of the stage rang forth with bizarre intensity. The stage’s extreme width meant that the action was often confined to centre stage, with hopelessly isolated supporting players often standing awkwardly off to one side like mannequins. The cavernous staging also leached emotion from this intimate play; the experience was similar to watching an intimate family drama in CinemaScope.

These missteps aren’t enough to obscure the play’s contemporary relevance. By laying bare the fragile underpinnings of status, Queen Lear taps into pressing social and economic anxieties. Edmund’s illicit attempt to gain power perversely parodies the social mobility denied him by the unjust social structure that lavishes praise on his bone-headed brother. Although his revenge plot is deeply immoral, it is hard not to identify with him. Conversely, Lear’s personal disintegration reveals the hollowness of her privileged position. Her individuality only becomes visible as she tries to claw back the remnants of her shattered self. In each case, Queen Lear vividly demonstrates the appalling effects of an atrophied, inflexible society on personal identity.

Queen Lear

Melbourne Theatre Company until August 18

Starring Robyn Nevin, Directed by Rachel McDonald

Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.