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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Queen Lear at the MTC

I love Shakespeare. No matter what he writes about, it's about people and the dumb things they do, and people haven't changed much in hundreds of years. Lear is about family. It has two families in which the parent throws out the loyal child and embraces the awful one.

But Shakespeare doesn't have any great roles for older women for the good reason that he didn't write roles for women at all. The boy actors were apprentices, learning their craft. There are some older women, such as Queen Margaret in Richard III, but she comes in, makes one long speech and doesn't appear again and her role is often left out altogether. All that said, I should add that I had a lecturer at Monash University who argued that he couldn't see a thirteen year old boy playing a role as complex and difficult as Lady Macbeth.

However, we'll assume, for now, that the female roles were, indeed, played by boys and that a lad who could play Lady Macbeth well would have a great career ahead of him.

So, no Shakespeare roles for a brilliant actress to play once she gets past a certain age -there are some middle-aged roles, but not many and no leads. I remember the late Frank Gallacher playing Lear once he was old enough. No more Hamlet - maybe Claudius. He was old enough to play the great role of Lear. And he did it brilliantly.

What do you do for someone like Robin Nevin, a superb actress at the height of her career, but too old for Lady M or Ophelia and probably too old even for Gertrude? You change Lear from a father to a mother, that's what.

I was a bit apprehensive when I arrived at the theatre. My sister couldn't bring herself to go at all. But I remembered that Geoffrey Rush played Lady Bracknell last year, and that he took the role seriously(as seriously as you can take a character like Lady Bracknell anyway) and got his only laughs from Oscar Wilde's words, not from hamming it up. After five minutes I forgot he was a man and just enjoyed the show.

This is not quite the same; Robin Nevin was not wearing a white beard. (And it wasn't like that production of Julius Caesar where a woman played Cassius for no special reason I could see, apart from making one more female role available)But the spirit was the same. It was a perfectly good production of Lear. Richard Piper played Gloucester, Robert Menzies was a fiercely protective Kent. Genevieve Picot was Goneril. There was the strange rearrangement of the Fool's role, splitting it among the three daughters, though even that has sort of been done before. Usually, it's Cordelia who doubles the Fool, due to one line in the last scene where Lear says, "My poor fool is hanged" just after Cordelia has been hanged. On the other hand, there was the scene in the RSC production in which Sylvester McCoy as the Fool is taken by Cornwall's men and hanged on stage just before intermission. ;-) (Someone at the tram stop afterwards remarked to me,"That is no way to treat the Doctor!") in this production the Fool wasn't really there, she just seemed to be functioning as Lear's conscience - literally!

Other than Lear -and the Fool- being female, it was a normal production of this play. You just didn't think about it after a while. Robin Nevin deserved the chance to play this role and did it beautifully, and there's something that works in the mother comforting her daughter in the scene where they go to prison. The only spot where I regretted the change was the Lear/Gloucester scene, where the two "foolish, fond old men" are together, Lear mad, Gloucester blind; it just didn't have quite the same meaning when one of them was a woman.

I missed the beginning of this play, having forgotten to check my ticket for the start time.They let me into the crying room, a glassed-in balcony for mothers and babies, and I watched there till intermission with a lady whose public transport had let her down. Still, it didn't take me long to catch up and of course, I know how it starts.

If you live in Melbourne, ignore the negative newspaper reviews and give it a go.

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