The Shadow King at the Barbican
With Brexit horror stories circulating like wildfire, a tale of territory and belonging has landed in the Barbican Theatre. The Shadow King offers an indigenous spin on Shakespeare’s King Lear, told from the perspective of Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders of the Northern Territories. The result is a visually stunning cultural exploration framing a classic tale that is unfortunately let down by overblown performances and one-dimensional characters.
This adaptation stays close to original, in that King Lear decides to divide his land between his three daughters. Whoever demonstrates the most love for him gets the largest share. Youngest daughter Cordelia is disgusted by the exaggerated displays of affection from her sisters, Goneril and Regan, and instead adopts a more sincere approach, disappointing her father’s steep expectations in the process. Greed over territory and confusion of identity causes events to spiral out of control. Sound familiar?
The Shadow King lets go of the Shakespeare handrail only to celebrate the culture of the indigenous Australians, which is where it flourishes. Rather than echo the tongue of the Bard, the script flows with realistic local dialect, bouncing between modern English and Kriol. The audience is transported to Northern Australia by the rich, red sand of the set and the authentic costume design. Also inspiring is the music, with a live street corner band playing traditional Aboriginal music sat atop upturned crates. The most touching moments are provided by the actors’ sporadic eruption into song, even though the language is alien to most.
The Shadow King’s main issue is the obvious lack of likeable characters – not a problem in itself, but there needs to be at least some depth, some mystery, some morsel of hope that displays compassion or gives light to the lack of it. Subtlety is absent, every line belted out, every movement embellished, lending to an overall grandiosity that erodes the scripts sharpest edges, reducing potential big laughs into mere throwaway comments. This makes it difficult to engage with, which is disappointing given that it is a great opportunity to peer into the soul of a territorial tale set on the other side of the world, when our own country appears increasingly fearful of other cultures. The Shadow King benefits from its fortuitous contextual jackpot on its arrival in a newly isolated UK, but offers little aside from its impressive visuals and soundscapes.
The Shadow King is on at the Barbican Theatre from 22nd June until 2nd July 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch a short trailer for The Shadow King here: