Maidment Theatre - Old Arts Quad, Auckland

01/03/2013 - 30/03/2013

Production Details


Starring: Michael Neill, Michael Hurst, Calum Gittins, Kate Watson, Peter Stevens, Michael Noonan, Anthea Hill, Geoff Snell … 

2013 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Outdoor Summer Shakespeare at the University of Auckland, an institution that has served as a breeding ground for Auckland theatrical talent over the past five decades. To celebrate, the AUSA Outdoor Shakespeare Trust will present the Bard’s greatest tragedy, King Lear, for a season in March.

Featuring theatre professionals, alumni and current students, King Lear boasts the Summer Shakespeare’s most distinguished creative team to date. Internationally renowned actress Lisa Harrow – formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a cast member in the very first Auckland Summer Shakespeare – brings a wealth of experience to her role as the production’s director. She is joined by acclaimed NZ actor/director Michael Hurst, who serves as artistic consultant and plays Lear’s all-knowing Fool.

The part of Lear himself is taken by eminent Shakespearean scholar Professor Michael Neill, older brother of the show’s Executive Producer and famous leading man, Sam Neill. The cast numbers over 30 people and will serve to illustrate the increasingly demented king’s dystopia. Top New Zealand composer Gareth Farr will further underscore Lear’s pain with clashes of brass and percussion.

King Lear,a work seldom performed because of the sheer stamina required of its performers, tells the story of a patriarchal world dragged into disarray by a conflict between truth and madness. Harrow, in conjunction with emerging set designer Jessika Verryt, aims to transport the audience back to a darker age, while holding a mirror up to our contemporary world.

Join us to celebrate the past 50 years of a unique theatrical experience, and to launch the next 50 with a bang!

Come and help us make history.

KING LEAR plays:
1 to 30 March, 2013, Tues – Sat, 7.30pm
Old Arts Plaza, The University of Auckland
Adults $30, Group (10+) $25, Students $19
Tickets on sale now from The Maidment Theatre or 09 308 2383  

King Lear:  Michael Neill
Goneril:  Lucinda Hare
Regan:  Kate Watson
Cordelia:  Anthea Hill
Albany:  Bruce De Grut
Cornwall:  Luke Thornborough
Gloucester:  Geoff Snell
Kent:  Peter Stevens
Edgar:  Andrew Paterson
Edmund:  Calum Gittins
Oswald:  #1 Tom Bishop
Oswald:  #2 Caleb Wells
Fool:  Michael Hurst
France:  Gorjan Markovski
Burgundy:  Nick McDuff
A Doctor:  Carl DeVere
Lear’s Knight:  Matt Norton
Cornwall Servant:  Ben Walker
Old Man:  Michael Noonan 

Set Designer:  Jessika Verryt
Costume Designer:  Gayle Jackson 
Lighting Designer:  Brad Gledhill

Stage Manager:  Fiona Ryan
Production Manager:  Theresa Hanaray
Administrator:  Sam Durbin
Assistant Producer:  Natalie Braid
Assistant Director:  Anna Francino
Beneficiary Manager:  Anthea Hill
Technical Manager:  Sam Mence  

Richness of text shines in King Lear

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 04th Mar 2013

Michael Neill brings compelling clarity to his delivery of Shakespeare’s dense poetics. 

King Lear is a fine choice for a celebration of Summer Shakespeare’s 50th year, and a production featuring some of our most distinguished practitioners delivers a stirring tribute to an institution that has often been a lonely prophetic voice proclaiming the enduring value of Shakespeare’s vision.

The play does not require any contemporary references to underline its relevance, but news of the Pope’s resignation presents an uncanny analogy to Lear’s rash decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters.

Director Lisa Harrow, returning from a spectacular international career, opts for a traditional style of production that honours the text by eschewing any intrusive conceptual baggage. [More


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Game of Thrones

Review by James Wenley 04th Mar 2013

When I consider King Lear I think of the high grand tragedy, the demands of the title role and the master actors who have played him, and I conjure the harrowing image of the old man against the storm on the heath. It was pleasing to be reminded that the play begins (where it all begins really) with humorous sexual bawdy concerning the mother of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund – “good sport at his making” – rather than anything loftier.

The action of this production of King Lear plays out on a large circular stage by designer Jessika Verryt – an image of a flat earth that at any moment they could teter off. It is a fitting image for a play that contains the gamut of human experience: family feuds; wisdom and madness, power and greed; compassion and the worst inhumanity and violence mankind is capable of. The mix of themes high and low and the damning portrait of humankind is the best stuff of Mr. William Shakespeare. But what truly elevates Lear specifically from others in his canon is its focus on our weakness and mortality. Death not by the swift sword, but – to borrow the sentiment of another Shakespeare tragedian – death by a thousand natural cuts. Verryt’s stage also becomes the wheel of time that will catch all in the end be they Kings, Popes, academics: the tragedy of the aging; decay of the body and the mind. [More


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Told with passion and heart, and easily followed

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 04th Mar 2013

The cover of the flash programme ($15) for King Lear informs us, in case we didn’t already know, that Auckland Summer Shakespeare’s 2013 production is celebrating 50 years of outdoor summer Shakespeare at the University of Auckland.  

Inside the publication there is a succinct welcome from Stuart McCutcheon, Vice Chancellor of The University of Auckland, who chat’s briefly about “capitalising on the talents of our students and staff” and congratulates those who have contributed to the productions of the past and this current one. 

There is also a welcome from Michael Hurst ONZM, chair of the AUSA Outdoor Shakespeare Trust. Hurst talks about “infrastructure”, “proper financial management” and “building resources”. He also talks about “taking care of the things that speak to our collective spirit”, “coming to grips with what it means to be human” and suggests that “we are all in this together.” Then he looks forward to seeing us at future productions. 

The next welcome is from Dan Haines, AUSA President. Haines talks about collaboration, mentions student life being about more than getting a degree and expresses his excitement at bringing us, the audience, the “highest possible calibre of Shakespearean theatre” where “seasoned professionals and veteran thespians are joined by an extraordinary cohort of emerging student talent.” Let’s hope the student talent doesn’t get swamped along the way and that student involvement at all levels continues to be a valued factor. 

Now add a smiling welcome from the Maidment staff, a lovely welcome at the entrance to the site, a chatty welcome at the on-site ticket office, a warm welcome from the chatty charmer who checks our tickets at the staging area and the three welcomes the gorgeous whaea gives us before the performance begins and it is impossible not to sit with the rest of the liter-glitterati feeling any less than thoroughly welcome.

Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that, while life is short, “there is always time enough for courtesy” and the gala launch of this 50th anniversary production proves to be a case in point.Everyone is incredibly courteous and long may that continue.

The Old Arts quad is a delightful, if difficult, space to work and design wunderkind Jessika Verryt has got the mix just right. She has worked the attractive old stone wall – a heritage feature so it can’t be touched – into the various curved shapes that make up the backdrop to a large circular stage with many step-up access points. Centre back of the expansive stage surface, alone and imposing, is a large wooden throne.

The scaffold seating is in three blocks and mirrors, in this case, the front edge of the raised stage artfully giving the impression of a production in the round while actually adhering to a much more conventional form: a proscenium with no arch.

The primary colour splashed on the stage is a deep midnight blue and Verryt has ingeniously used a series of stepped, suspended screens to the right of the stage and disappearing on up the hill providing an alternative visual focus while also allowing actors access to the stage without distracting from the action on it. Smart, attractive and functional, Verryt’s set is every bit as good as I’ve come to expect from this supremely talented young designer.

It should be said at the outset that this is a conventional production of the play and a conventional reading of the text, If you come expecting ‘Baz’ Luhrmann interpretative brilliance and eccentricity in staging you’ll be disappointed. Do come though, because, if you’re a Shakespeare nut you won’t be disappointed at all.

The costumes (Gayle Jackson) are excellent, the lighting is by Brad Gledhill which says it all – simply outstanding – and the luminous soundscape by the incredible Gareth Farr is as evocative of text, subtext, themes and the wild outdoors as could ever be wished for.

In the early 17th century, when Shakespeare was writing his The Tragedy of King Lear and its antecedent text The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, he could have been confident that his audiences would have been familiar with the story because it had been around for centuries. No such claim could reasonably be made today.

The story was first recorded by twelfth-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regium Britanniae but it’s likely Shakespeare would also have known of a deeply Christian version, The True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Leir and his Three Daughters, performed in1594 but not published until 1605. Shakespeare’s own texts – there are two of them – are dated between 1603 and 1606.

Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, an Attack on Jesuit Missionaries and their Exploitation of the Poor and Disadvantaged Members of Society (1603) introduces Edgar as Poor Tom o’ Bedlam and the five fiends mentioned again by Shakespeare are to be found in Harsnett’s second work, Obidicut, Hobbididence, Mahu, Modo and Flibbertigibbet.

Edmund Spenser expanded on the Lear tradition too, in The Faerie Queene (1590), by having Cordelia hanged and the themes and plot surrounding Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester are to be found in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, also published in 1590.

Shakespeare’s added Lear’s madness and the role of the Fool, each as important as the other and never more so than in this production.

For all that, Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 reworking of his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland is still Shakespeare’s most likely source and it is known that Holinshed’s own principle source was Geoffrey’s Historia Regium Britanniae.

It feels somewhat odd contextualizing King Lear at allwith this production being dedicated to the memory of the late Professor Sydney Musgrove, eminent Shakespearean scholar and founder of the outdoor Shakespeare tradition at The University of Auckland, and with the role of Lear himself being played by Michael Neill, Emeritus Professor of English at The University of Auckland, who is also a specialist in Shakespeare and the drama of the Bard’s contemporaries. Also pottering about the production is none other than Tom Bishop, current Professor of English at The University of Auckland, eminent Shakespearean scholar and co-editor of the Shakespeare International Yearbook, who plays Oswald.

On these grounds alone the play feels in great intellectual and academic hands and certainly needs nothing extra from me. The programme contains a wealth of information too, as you can probably imagine.

The production begins in the dusk and ends in the dark providing a beautiful metaphor for the play if one was necessary.

The director and cast pay Shakespeare the greatest of compliments: they tell his story as he wrote it, with passion and heart, and we follow it easily. It’s a straightforward, unadorned reading of the text and there are some excellent – and praiseworthy – performances. It’s a large cast and, as might be expected, performances vary in quality but, all in all, everyone works to the purpose of the play.

Director Lisa Harrow has transferred the complex journey from rehearsal area onto the stage with genuine style and the production is presented with poise and assurance. Sightlines are excellent throughout, entrances and exits are made, and lines – oodles of them – are delivered, with a pleasing sense of self-belief. I hear most of them, too, which is always a challenge in the outdoors. There’s a bit too much ‘speaking Shakespeare’ but not from the principles and it’s a small price to pay for audibility.

The plot:
Old King is ready to retire; divides his kingdom among his three daughters based on who will flatter him most. The two older girls, Regan and Goneril, go along with the charade but the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play. Anger and nastiness ensue and the story plays out as a political and personal nightmare for the king with his older daughters disempowering and disowning him until he goes mad. The faithful Kent is banished but disguises himself as Caius and never leaves his master. Lost in the wilderness Lear meets Tom o’ Bedlam (Edgar in disguise), plot and sub-plot join and Fool disappears. The weather deteriorates something shocking. The older sisters deny Lear lodging and demand he dismiss his retinue, Gloucester is needlessly blinded There is a battle. Lear and Cordelia are reunited only to be parted again. Regan is poisoned by Goneril who, when found out, commits suicide and Cordelia is hanged. Lear dies with his beloved youngest daughter already dead in his arms.

Does it sound simple? Well, it’s not, and it’s to the credit of the company that they never lose the plot and, because they don’t, we don’t either. Nor do we ever lose interest and that’s an excellent outcome especially when the air gets nippy, the helicopters circle overhead and the travel of the play hits three hours.

My son, age ten, is a Shakespeare nut. He’s been known to say “if it’s Shakespeare it must be good” and I have yet to disavow him of this. He thoroughly enjoyed his first meeting with this great tragedy and his love of the bard is undiminished. His favourite bits were the excellent battle with the knights, the smoke and the swish swordplay. He also narrated to plot to me without fault in the car going home. This says it all for me. If the production can tell the story to audience members of any age then it’s really doing its job.

This isn’t to say that the production is perfect. It’s not. There are parts that are far too evenly paced, the desire to be heard results in quite a lot of shouting and some of the cast work too much in the throat but these are all faults that are easily forgiven because the overall pace drives to the end of the play and we’re grateful for that. Subtleties of text and playing are the sacrifices made and, at times, there is a one dimensional aspect to the story telling but, again, we move on and are not much affected.

Michael Neill, already a very good Lear, will grow in the role.

Clever Mr Shakespeare, even though it’s Lear’s play, doesn’t leave its success – or otherwise – entirely up to him. There are times when the action is taken over by Gloucester (Geoff Snell), Edmund (Calum Gittins) and Edgar (Andrew Paterson), Kent (Peter Stephens) and the tree excellent women Goneril (Lucinda Hare), Regan (Kate Watson) and Cordelia (Anthea Hill). They play with the play and find all the right levels.

Lear is, we must remember, eighty years old and while Neill clearly is not but is actually a sprightly somewhat less, it’s still a long emotional and physical haul even for the fittest of men and he needs the occasional break. So do we because, when the play is working on an emotional level, which it does most of the time, our withers do not remain unwrung!

Neill looks right, is audible throughout, but could benefit from continuing to look for the richer emotional nuances in the role that will enable his already fine work to grow even more. This will enrich his pacing, which is occasionally too even, and his anger is sometimes indistinguishable from distress or simple shock, but these are quibbles as I really value his work and applaud him long and hard for his effort.

Michael Hurst plays Fool straight down the middle and it is heartening to see an actor so enmeshed in the truth of the role. Had Shakespeare seen Hurst’s version of Lear’s touchstone and how he played the tragic coxcomb there may well have been a sequel but he didn’t so you’ll just have to go and see this one instead. As a mirror in which Lear could, if he wished, see the reality of his own situation and the mendacity surrounding him, Hurst is exceptional at becoming, from the first moment, the master of the all the play’s irony.

The older sisters, Goneril (Lucinda Hare) and Regan (Kate Watson), are excellent from go to woe. I am personally pleased when I realise they are to be played as real women and not like the evil cartoon witches they are so often interpreted as. Director Harrow has allowed them to be beautiful and why not? They are the daughters of the king, after all.

This interpretation enables me, for the first time, to understand, through Neill’s superb illumination of Lear’s vile misogyny, why the sisters are the way they are. With a father whose views on women are so odious, whose rhetoric regarding female genitalia so appalling, and whose friends aren’t that much better, it’s not that much of a surprise that there’s no Mrs Lear in evidence nor a real Mrs Gloucester present anywhere in the play. 

Cordelia (Anthea Hill) is, to some extent, a thankless role and Hill does all that is asked of her and Kate Watson, with much more to do, absolutely shines as Regan.

Geoff Snell (Gloucester) and Peter Stephens (Kent) are equally impressive, with Stephens loyalty to the king a model of the manliness so often referred to in the play. The blinding of Gloucester is stunningly effective, a tour de force in fact, and as good an effect as I have ever seen.

The casting of Edgar (Tom o’ Bedlam) and Edmund, the sons of Gloucester, is the key to ensuring the powerful subplot of the play works and in Andrew Paterson (Edgar) and Calum Gittins (Edmund) director Harrow had twin gems. Each is able to play the text with ease and each has the courage to pull back the volume and trust the acoustics of the venue. The reward is subtle performances of power and depth with the balance between the siblings ever changing. Gittins in particular has the audience eating out of his somewhat mucky hand from the get go.

To sum up: this Lear is well worthy of being the 50th anniversary production and this director, cast and crew serve the play utterly and they do themselves, and their history, proud. Michael Neill has well and truly earned this special swansong and the entire ensemble can truly take a bow. 

The play, after all, is the thing.

For those considering attending this production you will find the service excellent. There’s a lovely, well stocked marquee bar and a couple of those big outdoor heaters for the interval but, take a cushion and, if you’re in a seat where your feet don’t reach the ground, some judicious and unobtrusive toe wriggling will ensure you can still walk when you stand up.

All in all, an excellent night. 


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