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Cast’s energy and commitment carry this experimental production

Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Little Theatre, UCT

Reviewer: Francois Tredoux

Director: Gay Morris
Design: Claire Berlein
Lighting design: Kobus Rossouw

Student productions of Shakespeare are usually fertile ground for experimenting with new ideas, and this production by the UCT Drama Department is no exception. In the director’s programme notes, Gay Morris explains that she chose “to go forward in time to the space age when other planets and constellations may be caught up in a war among the stars”.

This concept leads to interesting design ideas: species-specific mannerisms, ritualised movements, over-the-top costumes — all underscored by a bare white stage with a stylised celestial map drawn on the stage floor, a map that Lear uses when he divides his kingdom according to his daughters’ pledges of their love for him.

The design focuses attention on the main personality traits of each character. Lear — his costume reminiscent of an aged eagle — retains his regality, and his bird of prey sharpness, making it easy to understand how difficult it is for him to bid adieu to all the trappings of power. Cordelia looks like a cross between a snow owl and a white dove, emphasising her innocence and the truth of the words she speaks from her heart. Goneril and the Duke of Albany, with snakes writhing over their costumes, and Regan and the Duke of Cornwall, as mutant scorpion-cum-cockroach-cum-beetle creatures, display all the worst characteristics of those species: they are sly, venomous, creepy and fatal. Oswald looks like a black widow-spider, spinning webs of lies and deceit.

Morris also chose to underscore personality traits by using judicious gender-bending: Lear, Edgar and Edmund are played by women, Goneril and Regan by men.

The costumes, reversal of gender and resultant characterisation served to capture the attention of the mostly teenaged audience on the night I attended, but only for the first ten minutes or so. When the novelty wore off, the school kids started to fidget and talk amongst themselves — not only spoiling the play for the rest of the audience, but also making it difficult for the actors.

In the final analysis the success of the play rests not on design, but on acting. King Lear is an ambitious play for student actors, and doubly so for the actor taking the taxing part of the king. Coba-Maryn Wilsenach managed to portray the frailty of the old man, as well as the less subtle manifestations of his greed and the fear of his loss of power. The madness scenes, however, were not altogether convincing — not for a lack of trying on her part, though.

Nceba Mpiliswana (the Fool) acted with great energy, and tried to make the part his own. A seemingly natural talent for buffoonery helped in this regard, although he also managed to endow the character with the requisite empathy towards his king and master.

John Gamble and Shaun Webb, as Goneril and Regan respectively, were elegantly evil, as were Diedre le Patourel and Gahlia Phillips as the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Thando Mthi, as Gloucester, portrayed all the necessary elements of questioning loyalty and nobility.

The cast carries the play with their energy and commitment; but even so the production lacked an overall sense that the student actors have grappled enough with life to make tragedy really credible on stage.

boontoe / to the top

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