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The Shadow King (Barbican Theatre)

Michael Kantor's production re-imagines King Lear as the leader of an indigenous community

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Despite a deep rooted belief that no individual owns the land - the land owns us - indigenous Australian families have fallen out bitterly over land rights in Northern Australia.

The grab for land, mining rights and fights over legitimacy have eaten into the traditional ways - and when actor Tom E Lewis pointed out that this tragedy has many parallels to King Lear, he and director Michael Kantor began working on an idea to adapt Shakespeare's story.

The Shadow King uses a free mix of language, combining English, Kriol and traditional tongues that are specific to area. The result is a retelling of Lear in the actors' own words, and it's a powerful, intriguing exploration of power shifts and family feuding.

Tom E Lewis is a robust, swaggering Lear, and his singing and exuberant use of movement brings a new dimension to the ageing king's fateful decisions.

He has terrific support from Kamahi Djordon King as the Fool, whose resonant voice and calm, measured presence serves to bind the production together. Jimi Bani is outstanding as Edmund, whose outrage over his loss of birthright drives much of the tragedy. He has tremendous presence on stage, expressing the cunning of a duplicitous son, the ruthless ambition that lays waste to everything he touches, and the lothario who can successfully weave two powerful sisters into his web.

Cordelia is played with a wistful, open warmth, while Goneril and Regan are both moderately sympathetic characters in this production, with their own greed and ambition kindled by Edmund who warps their interpretation of duty and inheritance.

The show is designed with great care for the indigenous tradition, and designer Paul Jackson and costume designer Ruby Langton-Batty have ensured that the key images and artefacts used in the production have authenticity. The use of video projections is also very effective in creating a sense of the vastness and beauty of the Northern Territory, as well as the intimate environment of the sisters' homesteads.

One of the key strengths of the production is its music, and musical director John Rodgers' excellent band combine traditional sounds like the eerie call of the didgeridoo, with the upbeat and very contemporary Aboriginal rock. Having the band live on stage injects further energy into the show.

Combining one of the greatest plays in the Western tradition with the struggles of indigenous Australians is a fascinating idea, and it works effectively to a great extent. However, there are hefty sections where the action slows down, and while the language combinations are interesting, it runs the risk of sounding like a constant running translation into English.

But the power of the closing scene retains all its horror and emotion, and this is a project that gives a new voice to a community whose stories need to be heard.

The Shadow King runs at the Barbican Theatre until 2 July.

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