Content note: King Lear Monster Show! includes strong coarse language, simulated violence and drug use, adult themes, and scenes of a highly sexualised nature. The Curators’ Theatre recommends this production for ages 15+.
The Curators’ Theatre have opened their 2022 season with a superbly bleak and bejewelled adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Adapted and directed by Michael Beh, King Lear Monster Show! is a neon wasteland, a tale of two dynasties imploding, and a party for the end of the world.
Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, on which the production is based, tells the story of the titular tyrant who promises to divide his realm amongst his three daughters if they will tell him how much they love him. His eldest daughter, Goneril, and middle daughter, Regan, flatter him with extravagant words but the youngest, Cordelia, refuses and is subsequently banished. While Lear’s mental state slowly deteriorates and he wanders through a storm, cast out by the daughters who declared they loved him best, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester plays his father and brother against one another for his own gain. King Lear is a tale of two families falling apart, a descent into madness that is both personal and political.
King Lear Monster Show! was intellectually complex, layered with art from well beyond the realm of Shakespeare’s script. In this sense (and almost always, in seeing an adaptation of a classic work), I would recommend familiarising yourself with the key characters and plot points of King Lear beforehand in order to enjoy and appreciate the changes and choices that have been made. A number of modern elements and attitudes were effectively incorporated, trading swordplay for teeth and syringes, but the occasional inclusion of mobile phones was jarring as letters were also used as a means of communicating (and, as in many of Shakespeare’s plays, a letter arriving or discovered at the wrong time usually results in at least one death).
As in many adaptations, characters and plot points were conflated or streamlined. King Lear Monster Show! still runs for over two hours, with a twenty-minute interval, but the time flew past in the colour and drama unfolding onstage. Perhaps the most significant change was to the role of the Fool, played as an otherworldly and curious observer by Eleonora Ginardi. Part plaything and part prophet, Ginardi’s Fool did not disappear after Act 3, as in many productions of Shakespeare’s script, but remained on the sidelines to watch and indulge Lear’s descent into madness. In some moments, it seemed to be implied that she was the mother of Lear’s daughters. The character of Poor Tom in King Lear Monster Show! was also markedly different, replacing Tom’s usual mud with blue body paint and intercutting his rambling dialogue with prolific profanity.
There was an obvious depth to the development of these distorted and reimagined characters, and each actor was powerfully engaging in their roles. Warwick Comber brought his characteristic gravitas to the role of Lear, his resonant voice and formidable stage presence evolving throughout the play to become increasingly erratic and abject, accompanied everywhere by Eleonora Ginardi’s patient and perceptive Fool.
The wild, high energy of Sherri Smith’s simpering and sadistic Regan, matching lilac rope and riding crop in hand, contrasted against Amanda McErlean’s sardonic, grounded Goneril and Lauren Roche took on the role of dedicated and headstrong daughter Cordelia. Roche is also credited as ‘Minx Magnificat’, which presumably covers the aspects of her performance while Cordelia was in exile. Greg Scurr brought a seriousness to the role of Kent, and an alleviating humour in disguise as Kanga.
The Earl of Gloucester was reimagined as “Aunty Jenny” Gloucester, played by Julia Johnson in a postured manner informed by Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. The dynamics between Gloucester and each of her sons were especially excellent, as were the emotional reunions of the wronged children, Edgar and Cordelia, with their parents.
Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester, was rendered as a party boy with track marked elbows, an addict whose ravings as Poor Tom could be interpreted as symptoms of withdrawal. Cameron Hurry delivered an impressive and highly physical performance in this role, showing great versatility and embodying the many facets of Edgar/Poor Tom.
Emerging artist Willem Whitfield was outstanding in the role of Edmunde, crafting a captivating and charismatic villain whose smirking lust for power and domination held the audience’s attention for every moment he spent on the stage. Although Whitfield threatened to steal the show, the entire cast delivered a well-balanced, passionate, and all-around excellent performance.
Lear’s status as a conventional patriarch and misogynist was juxtaposed against the sexual fluidity of the two younger men. However, the taboo of incest muddied this challenge to heteronormativity and patriarchal leadership, and Edgar’s fate suggested the restoration of an old order, and old ways of holding power and authority. The brief final scene served to highlight that there was no justice, no reward for love or loyalty, in the inherently chaotic and unjust world that the characters inhabit.
The wood-panelled walls of Christ Church, Milton, were adorned with floor to ceiling portraits of the characters, created by Ronnie Wakefield (these are available for purchase once the season concludes, if you have higher ceilings than I do). To sit in the audience, either at floor level or in the seating bank, was to be watched over by these looming renderings of the characters. The stage area was split in two – the Christ Church stage, which included a catwalk-style rise, and a separate square stage closer to the audience, adorned with silver-painted objects. The action moved between these two spaces, although the stairs sometimes made for awkward transitions.
Set design by Beth Scott leaned towards the dystopian and ‘found objects’ aesthetic, while surtitles, character introductions, and other elements were projected onto a round screen behind the stage. The famous eye-plucking scene with Gloucester was achieved effectively with projections, the implication of gore sufficient amid the maniacal laughter of Goneril and Regan, still holding their badminton racquets from an earlier scene.
Composition and sound design by Brian Cavanagh created a distinctive soundscape, at the centre of which was Beethoven’s Fist, Beethoven’s fifth symphony remixed with the yelping of the Fool and the howling of Poor Tom. Lighting design by David Willis and vision design by Nathaniel Knight also contributed to the atmosphere and storytelling, particularly in the neon lightning of the storm and the blood spatter of Gloucester’s blinding.
The idea of ‘speaking in tongues’ added a further layer to this production, with proclamations in German, French, Latin, and Spanish contributing to the crafted chaos onstage. This also added an element of visual interest, with surtitles projected behind the characters, although the colourful and dynamic text design was occasionally difficult to read.
Modern costuming designed by Michael Beh was amply colourful and textured, and changed throughout the performance for each character. Coloured wigs and dramatic makeup emphasised the hyperreality of the characters although some of these, like Goneril’s green hair, fell away as the work progressed. Shakespeare’s script has been similarly cut and adorned for King Lear Monster Show!, with additions drawn from the poetry of John Keats, T S Eliot, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Butler Yeats, as well as from classical literature like Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. A quote from Federico Fellini, whose visual language as a filmmaker informed the work, was also repeated throughout.
Beh’s direction created its own visual language, with strong foreshadowing and further meaning built into the blocking and use of props. Notable examples are Edmunde blindfolding his mother, and Lear’s elder daughters each taking one of his crutches as they tired of indulging their father and his entourage. For all of the momentum and intensity that carried this production dizzyingly forward, there were also moments of moving stillness, such as the silence after Gloucester’s death.
King Lear Monster Show! is Shakespeare gone deliciously feral – glitter and grunge, sex and death, love and power collide in this massive and memorable production that speaks to personal and political apocalypses in the modern world.
King Lear Monster Show! will play at Christ Church, Milton, from 18 May to June 5 2022.