King Lear

Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

01/08/2007 - 05/08/2007

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

10/08/2007 - 01/09/2007

Production Details

by William Shakespeare
directed by David Lawrence


Who is it that can tell me who I am?

The Bacchanals’ brand new co-production with the Fortune Theatre of Shakespeare’s King Lear, perhaps the most profound analysis of the human condition ever written, will be unveiled to the public in Wellington on August 1. We’ve been working away in the Tararua Tramping Clubrooms over July, and the struggle to get King Lear to the stage seems to be echoing the horrendous struggle the characters in the play endure. Light at the end of the tunnel was provided by the Bolton Hotel and by a last-minute cash injection by Creative New Zealand (whoever thought we’d see that happen?!) and for one glorious week at the end of June everything looked fine. The wonderful Edward Petherbridge arrived from the UK on June 29 rearing to go but was admitted to hospital during the first week of rehearsals with medical complications caused by, we thought, jet-lag, exhaustion and a bad response to changed blood pressure medication. We battled on with other scenes but by the end of week one had to face the devastating news that, after six months of preparation and daily e-mail and telephone communication, Edward is not well enough to continue in the role, and by the time you read this he’ll have returned to England.

The fantastic Mick Rose has saved the day in every sense by agreeing to take over the title role in what most consider to be Shakespeare’s Everest. Mick was last seen on stage in Democracy at Circa in 2005 and it’s the third time he’s battled King Lear — he played the Earl of Kent in Theatre At Large’s 1997 production and he played Lear in Simon Bennett’s 1988 Summer Shakespeare production at Victoria University. While most sane actors would run a mile at the challenge, Mick has leapt into it boots and all and his work so far has been magnificent. So fear not — King Lear is safe and sound and we cannot wait to show you what a time we’ve had with this fantastic play.

Besides Mick as Lear, the fabulous cast features long-time Bacchanals Erin Banks as Cordelia and the Fool, Alex Greig as Edmund, Salesi Le’ota as Oswald, Malcolm Murray as the Earl of Kent and Phil Grieve as the Duke of Albany, with Bruce Phillips as the Earl of Gloucester, Jacqueline Nairn as Regan, Amy Tarleton as Goneril and Alistair Browning as the Duke of Cornwall, David Goldthorpe as Burgundy and Sam Snedden as Edgar. Director David Lawrence helms the project.

IN WELLINGTON: King Lear will play in the main theatre space at Te Whaea – the National School of Dance and Drama in Newtown. There will be two special preview performances on Wednesday 1 August and Thursday 2 August, with the official opening of the show on Friday 3 August and two further performances on Saturday 4 August and Sunday 5 August . All performances begin at 7pm except the Sunday performance which is at 4pm. The show will be approximately three hours in length. Tickets can be booked by phoning 0800-EDMUND (0800-336863) or by e-mailing (that’s right, you can click on that link there! Go on!).

Tickets for the Wellington run of King Lear will be $25 waged, $22 concession and $20 for groups of 10+. Yes, I know this is a betrayal of our low-ticket price ethic, but the nature of the Fortune-Bacchanals co-production makes it a much more viable but also much more costly venture. And as stage manager extraordinaire Simon Vincent points out, December’s Hamlet was free, so King Lear-goers are effectively picking up the tab from that show, so it all balances out!

IN DUNEDIN: King Lear will play at the Fortune Theatre from Friday 10 August to Saturday 1 September, with performances at 6pm Tuesdays, 7pm Wednesday-Saturdays and at 4pm on Sundays. You can book by phoning the Fortune Theatre on 03 477-8323 or by e-mailing .

Those details one last time …

King Lear plays at Te Whaea Theatre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown
Wednesday 1 August – Saturday 4 August at 7pm
Sunday 5 August at 4pm
Bookings phone 0800-EDMUND (0800-336863) or e-mail

King Lear plays at the Fortune Theatre
Friday 10 August – Saturday 1 September
Tuesdays at 6pm, Wednesday – Saturdays at 7pm, Sundays at 4pm
Bookings phone 03 477-8323 or visit

Mick Rose
Erin Banks
Alex Greig
Salesi Le'ota
Malcolm Murray
Phil Grieve
Bruce Phillips
Jacqueline Nairn
Amy Tarleton
Alistair Browning
David Goldthorpe
Sam Snedden

Theatre ,

3 hours incl. interval

Return season wanted in Wellington

Review by Eleanor Bishop 26th Aug 2007

Wellington director David Lawrence mounts one of the most difficult plays of all time, with a monumental cast and from what I hear, a lot of monumental obstacles along the way.

The take is a classic, ageless one – the costumes appear timeless, with the colour schemes linking the families together and the lighting (Joshua Judkins) is simple, evoking nature’s disharmony, helped along by Walter Plinge’s excellent soundscape. However, it’s filled with a few of the quirky touches we’ve come to expect of the Bacchanals such as the fantastic, utterly theatrical opening (which I won’t ruin as I hope and pray this production comes back to Wellington), the Earl of Kent (Malcolm Murray) disguising himself as a kiwi type farmer, and The Beatles playing as the show ends.

The ensemble work together well, and individually, there are some outstanding performances. Erin Banks as Cordelia and The Fool is particularly good, her performance clearly making the link between the knowledge that both The Fool and Cordelia possess and Lear does not, which is ultimately his downfall. Mick Rose makes for an earthy Lear, and brought shivers as he gave a guttural scream for his dead Cordelia.

Regan (Jacqueline Nairn) and The Duke of Cornwall (Alistair Browning) are deliciously evil, and I loved the Blasted / Sarah Kane-esque reference as Regan tears out Gloucester (Bruce Phillips)’s eyeball with her teeth. Yum. Bacchanals staple Alex Greig is in fine form as evil bastard (literally) Edmund.

However, the show lacks what I’ve come to know as the usual Bacchanals take on Shakespeare – quick scenes, sped up (yet enunciated) language and bursting with energy. The opening night performance seemed to lack some pace, which I can only assume is because they’ve been rehearsing with their Lear (Mick Rose) for only two weeks (due to their original Lear being unable to perform). However, I’m sure the production will get an outstanding reception in Dunedin and let’s hope Circa / Downstage wake up and give it a spot. 


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A great work realised with fidelity

Review by Terry MacTavish 13th Aug 2007

Diary entry, Wednesday, 29 May 1974, Oxford, England:
"…The most fantastic Shakespearean performance I’ve ever seen!  A very powerful but controlled Lear – no ranting! – and the rest of the cast a delight, Edward Petherbridge the Fool…Glory and catharsis!"

Yes, that was this reviewer, excited young colonial on first OE, and the Oxford King Lear, actually also starring Ian McKellan as Edgar (and naked as Poor Tom), wasn’t my first Lear either. That was a respectable Southern Players version with Waric Slyfield as Lear and the Fool the talented Simon O’Connor, like me still in his teens. The production was timed to support our careful study of the play at Otago University.

Therein lies the difficulty, of course, in reviewing what many critics call the Everest of theatre. We all have the ideal King Lear in mind, either as a gilded memory or the creation of our own imaginations. The disappointment of not after all seeing Edward Petherbridge now cast in the title role may also make it hard to be just to the valiant Mick Rose, who stepped belatedly into the breach.

And what an undertaking this part is. Lear’s journey from arrogant ruler to pitiful broken wretch is more horrifying than that of any other Shakepearean tragic hero, and akin, so Prof Horsman told us, to the suffering of Job. Evil seems to hold all the cards and honesty and plain speaking are seen as foolish.

Lear recklessly relinquishes his kingdom to his daughters according to their publicly expressed love for him. True-hearted Cordelia cannot exaggerate like her unscrupulous sisters and is banished, along with Kent who takes her part. She leaves England as the bride of the devoted King of France while Kent disguises himself as a loyal countryman to serve Lear secretly. Of course the sisters soon seek to destroy their now impotent father who is turned out into a terrible storm and, ‘bound upon a wheel of fire’, learns wisdom through madness. In a parallel plot the Earl of Gloucester rejects his worthy legitimate son Edgar because of the machinations of his wicked bastard offspring, Edmund and is similarly betrayed.

The Fortune’s set is surprisingly bare, with minimal scenery: a flat stage with massive corrugated-plastic windows that seem recycled from 2005’s Hamlet (Edward Craig would be proud), and a red velvet curtain torn down by Lear at the climax of his fury to reveal a stack of suitcases. But King Lear is a simple play to stage and director David Lawrence is thus enabled to concentrate on the action, moving his actors swiftly across the stage so the scenes almost merge. Lawrence does not shy away from the violence and savagery of the play, and the fight scenes and appalling torture of Gloucester are carefully devised and genuinely horrifying. Twelve hard-working actors shift easily into rhubarb rhubarb mode as soldiers, servants, etc with monk-like hooded grey robes when they are not required in more significant roles.

There are some lovely lighting effects by Alan Surgener especially when the storm’s rain and lightning are reflected in the plastic panes. The costumes are mostly contemporary with the women’s gowns gradually reducing to reveal more cleavage and bare skin as lust overcomes them while Lear’s elegant white suit disintegrates to leave him in old man’s long-johns.

As Lear, Mick Rose starts as urbane and suave, secure of his position even when blindfolded for a birthday surprise. The role places extraordinary demands on the actor and if perhaps Rose does not scale the peaks of passion in the raging storm, he does give a distressingly credible interpretation of a mind destroyed, capering crazily across the stage in his long underwear, or sprawling like a helpless baby in the arms of blinded Gloucester. His tender reconciliation with Cordelia makes the more touching his despairing grief at her death.

Gloucester is played with confident power by veteran actor Bruce Phillips. With his initial arrogance and poor judgement he, like Lear, seems to deserve punishment, but Phillips brings such anguish to his ultimate sufferings that we feel nothing but pity. It would be interesting to see him undertake Lear some day.

The audience warmed to Erin Banks in both her roles as sincere Cordelia and later as Lear’s  Fool, led with dog collar and rope like the downtrodden Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Much of the Fool’s speech is unintelligible to us today but Banks tackles it with determination and a vigorous physicality.

Her sisters bear a resemblance to TV’s Desperate Housewives, reinforced by Regan’s similarity to the perfectly groomed and scary Bree. Amy Tarleton is energetic as Goneril despite some trouble grappling with the language, while Jacqueline Nairn is stunning as a sophisticated vampirish Regan with superb timing and  blood-red nails. As their husbands, Alistair Browning throws himself into evil Cornwall with gleeful gusto while Phil Grieve manages to wring a little grim humour from the character of the cuckolded Albany.

As good and bad sons to Gloucester, Sam Sneddon and Alex Greig balance each other well, their unhappy relationship culminating in a dexterous sword fight.  The doubling of characters makes for further interest. Salesi Le’ota is more convincing as elegantly insolent servant Oswald than as the King of France, while the very competent Malcolm Murray has more fun in disguise as a down-to-earth kiwi bloke than as courtier Kent, and David Goldthorpe gamely takes on any remaining characters.

It is the poetry and imagery that make the play reverberate beyond the demands of the action and on Saturday this heightened language did prove a struggle for some, especially younger cast members who at times lacked clarity. Sometimes, too, an awkward direct address to the audience would seem curiously inappropriate. These flaws may be overcome as the company adapts itself to the theatre and its acoustics, but judicious cuts would perhaps have enabled the cast to concentrate more on what remained, as well as making for a less lengthy evening. Two hours is a long first half!

That said it is tremendous that the Fortune has the budget-courage to mount a Shakespeare almost every year, and a commendable challenge to combine with the free-spirited Bacchanals from wild Wellington. Hopefully Dunedin will give the venture the support it deserves. School students at least will pack the theatre and maybe find the ‘glory and catharsis’ of a great work realised with fidelity. At the very least they should be well satisfied with the bloodthirsty action and a really cool line in cursing: ‘Unnatural hags’, ‘degenerate bastards’, and my personal favourite, ‘thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter!’


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Satisfying conquest of theatrical peak

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 06th Aug 2007

To perform King Lear has been described as the theatrical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. From the moment rehearsals started this production was beset with difficulties and David Lawrence and his Bacchanals company must have felt that they would never even reach base camp.

It is good to report – and without making allowances for their problems – that this Lear is the best cast, best spoken, most expansive and professional of all Bacchanals’ forays into Elizabethan tragedy.

And none of Bacchanals’ trademarks is missing: simplicity, speed, multi-period costumes, attention to detail and careful analysis of the text, not to mention daring and sometimes gauche directorial touches.

It begins with a family celebration and Lear playing Blind Man’s Bluff before he blindly gives away his kingdom to his daughters. The tragedy ends with a line from a Beatles song to ram home the point that the play is still relevant!

But Lear and Gloucester’s journeys (suitcases are important props throughout) to self-awareness and an understanding of love and morality are told with a directness that is compelling and in the case of Gloucester’s blinding we are presented with blood-filled horror, which at one performance caused an audience member to faint.

At the start Mick Rose, who took on the role of Lear at very short notice indeed, looks far too young and sane to say ‘let me not be mad’ and be described as old before his time. Lear’s terrible imprecations to Goneril and Regan seem simply spiteful rather than a mind out of control.

But once Lear is on the heath and battling the storm and the one in his mind he is most impressive and his scene with the blind Gloucester is a lovely intimate conversation between two suffering old men. He rises beautifully to the challenge of the final scene and is most moving.

It makes a great deal of sense to have an actor double the roles of Cordelia and the Fool. Both characters tell Lear the truths he does not want to hear and it is clear that Lear sees them at the end as one.

As Cordelia Erin Banks is the honest daughter. As the Fool, with a rope around her neck like a leash, she is superb, quite the best Fool I have seen. It is also a marvelous touch for the Fool to bear mute, horrified witness to Gloucester’s blinding.

There is firm support from Bruce Phillips’s Gloucester (the Dover cliff scene is especially well performed with Sam Snedden as a quietly spoken – too quietly at times – Edgar), Malcolm Murray’s Kent (an honest Kiwi farmer), Alex Greig’s Edmund (a charming psychopath), and Amy Tarleton and Jacqueline Nairn as the two evil sisters.

Alistair Browning is bit too much the Victorian villain as Cornwall (if he had a moustache he would have been twirling it) but his fury and abandon during the blinding scene make it both realistic and unbearable, while Albany’s eventual change of heart towards the end is made believable by Phil Grieve.

By the time the production reaches Dunedin it will have grown even more in stature and deserves full houses for its season there.


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Lucid, perceptive and stimulating

Review by John Smythe 04th Aug 2007

For a moment the sound of John Lennon warbling A Day in the Life – "I read the news today oh boy" – seems to trivialise the tragedy we have just witnessed over three compelling hours. Except there is nothing trivial about the news these days. It’s full of global, national and domestic tragedy. And the choice we are invariably faced with is to shrug it off as yet another atrocity/ disaster/ calamity, or try to understand why it happened in the hope we can honour our natural desire to declare, "Never again!"

At the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear, as the disenfranchised but wiser ex-king expires amid the bodies of all three daughters – two dead at each other’s hands, the other hanged in gaol before her reprieve came through – Edgar’s epilogue offers the moral: "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." And there we have it: failure to speak truly, and to value truth above flattery or fear, is what has precipitated these tragic outcomes.

If the King had not lapped up the loving platitudes of his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, and failed to perceive the honesty in Cordelia’s inability to ape their hypocrisy, he would not have lost his kingdom, status and reason for being to the venal forces of greed, lust and indifference. Only by being stripped of all his wealth and power, has he been able to achieve true wisdom, albeit too late and in a way that makes him fear he’s lost his mind.

The paradox has everything to do with why this truth endures. As the notice outside the Te Whaea auditorium says, "people susceptible to existential angst may find this play disturbing".

Once more director David Lawrence – whose ‘Bacchanals’ combine forces and resources with Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre for this production – has aligned his cast to a clear and intelligent rendition of a Shakespeare play, produced simply, with flair and a focused energy born of a deep-set love for the work. Given their loss, one week into rehearsal, of Edward Petherbridge – who arrived from the UK to play the title role after months of long-distance pre-productive development, only to be taken ill and return home – I was prepared to make allowances. But there is no evidence that adversity has taken its toll. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Despite an absurdly short rehearsal time, Mick Rose (who played the role nearly 20 years ago at university, then played Kent in a more recent production) commands our empathy as he takes us on King Lear’s epic journey. Rather than play the despot getting his come-uppance, Rose brings an endearing Everyman quality to the role from the moment he is led in blindfold by his daughters to his surprise birthday party (an inspired opening image) and accepts their adulation as of right, through his dismay and anger at Cordelia’s defiance, and his increasing ill-treatment at the hands of Goneril and Regan and their husbands, to his cathartic brainstorm on the blasted heath and the strange equilibrium he arrives at, only to have it shattered by the deaths of his daughters.

Having brought great inner strength and resolve to the circumspect Cordelia, Erin Banks excels even more as the king’s fearlessly loquacious Fool, convincing us that even the most impenetrable utterances embody profound wisdom. A dog-collar and rope lead, well employed to capture the nature of the Fool’s loyalty, prove an awfully apt set up for the noose around Cordelia’s neck at the end. (I think I’m right in saying this doubling replicates the casting in Shakespeare’s original all-male company.)

As the oldest daughter, Goneril, Amy Tarleton makes elder abuse, husband hatred and lust for bad boys (the bastard Edmund) seem entirely natural, while Phil Grieve, as the Duke of Albany, progresses clearly from compliant husband to his own man, taking military action somewhat too late to right the wrongs he has been complicit in.

Jacqueline Nairn’s Regan is chillingly convincing in her professions of love, her resistance to Lear and his retinue cluttering her home, and her blood lust punishment of those who question her actions – abetted by her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, who is positively (if that’s the word) psychotic as portrayed by Alistair Browning.

The blinding of Gloucester is as shocking, if not more so, than any of the many I have seen, not least because the theatrical spectacle does not eclipse the all-too-believable motives behind it.

In dramatic counterpoint to Lear’s story, the Duke of Gloucester’s misguided faith in his conniving bastard son Edmund, to the detriment of his legitimate son Edgar, is vividly enacted by Bruce Phillips, Alex Grieg and Sam Snedden respectively, although Snedden has yet to nail the whys and wherefores of Edgar’s self-protecting ‘Poor Tom’ persona. (As a recent graduate of Toi Whakaari, it is surprising that he is the only one who has not found the pitch of the Te Whaea space, rendering much of Poor Tom unintelligible.)

Grieg’s bright-eyed delight at being the bastard is a refreshing change from the dark moroseness with which the role is often played, in that he demands we step back from a natural inclination to side with his enthusiasm and instead apply more objective moral standards to his behaviour. 

Phillips navigates Gloucester’s journey from confident man, bragging with Kent about the sport that was had at the conceiving of Edmund, to the blinded man who now sees where he went wrong, with consummate skill. His scene with Lear on the beach – redolent, somehow, of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot – is memorable and touching, as it should be. 

Malcolm Murray does a fine job as the Earl of Kent, whose earthy, no-nonsense masculinity and integrity sees him survive, along with Edgar, where others don’t. While Salesi Le’ota tends to over-declaim his lines, he excels in non-verbal communication of the natures and motives that drive both the King of France and Oswald, Goneril’s self-serving steward.

David Goldthorpe completes this wondrously aligned ensemble with full commitment to a range of roles. Everyone plays Knights and Soldiers as required, with a simple colour-coding system of green, red, blue and white leaving us in no doubt as to who belongs to which faction.

One thing that especially struck me with this production was how meaningful it becomes that people tend to be recognised according to their position rather than who they really are. Usually we just have to accept, as theatrical convention, that people become incognito just because they change their clothes. But here, when despite fearing he’s losing his mind Lear finally recognises people for who they are, a core theme of the play is revealed.

I was expecting to say that after this very brief Wellington ‘out of town tryout’ that the production will likely come into its own when performed in a fully designed set at The Fortune in Dunedin. And no doubt some aspects will evolve and improve. But nothing about what we’ve seen in Wellington suggests this is anything but a fully realised, lucid, perceptive and stimulating production of a great classic.


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