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Theatre Review: King Lear

by Vivien Whyte (she/her)

associate editor

Associate Editor, Vivien Whyte, reviews Auckland Theatre Company’s 2023 season of King Lear. With less than two weeks until their closing night, don’t miss out! With AUT students eligible for heavily discounted tickets at $22.

Auckland Theatre Company’s production of King Lear takes Shakespeare’s classic and fearlessly catapults it into the 21st century. With artful precision, directors Benjamin Kilby-Henson and Michael Hurst, who also plays the main role of Lear, strip the play down to a blank canvas - its barest intentionally - only to build it up in a way that is both innovative and deeply engaging.

One of the great Shakespearean tragedies, the play revolves around the ageing King Lear, who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters based on their shallow flattery of him. This sets in motion of chain of events that send both the play and the King into madness. Schemes of greed and power bubble to the surface, families are ripped apart, and betrayal emerges from the shadows - all ultimately propelling us to the play's tragic end.

I’ll admit my Shakespearean knowledge doesn’t go beyond the soliloquies and metaphors presented to me in NCEA English. Going into ASB’s Waterfront Theatre five years later, I didn’t know what to expect. However, from the beginning, one thing was clear. Every aspect of the play’s set and performance was intentionally and deliberately placed to bring forth the bare essence of the story and themes. Every microexpression, prop and step served a purpose to unravel the narrative at its core. Performed in the round, with audience members on either side of a narrow white strip of stage, the performance utilises space, costume and breathtaking performances to create a truly immersive experience for the audience.

The performances delivered by the star-studded cast were nothing short of phenomenal. With no weak links whatsoever. Each actor breathed life into their role, infusing the tragedy with moments of laughter, side-eye, and undeniable flair and authenticity. As the play descends into chaos and destruction, the actors brave storm and lightning (quite literally) to carry the audience through an emotional journey that will definitely leave a lasting impression.

[Minor spoilers ahead] As audience members, we are presented with delightful surprises that would’ve surely amused Shakespeare himself. Unexpected and distinctly modern elements such as a real cascading waterfall, a sequin-dressed maddened King, an infusion of Kiwi accents, fools in leopard-print pimp coats, stormtrooper/peacekeeper-esque costumes and a gender-bent lead who masterfully girlboss, gaslight, gatekeeps her way into virtually everyone's mind (characters and audience members alike). These elements would not have been around in Shakespeare’s day. Yet the wit, authenticity and artistry behind them capture the entertainment and thrill that 16th-century tomato-throwing audiences would’ve enjoyed in a way I’ve never experienced before.

I found myself captivated beyond imagination throughout the entire performance. Bold and innovative, the production is a true testament to the power of theatre to transcend expectations and boundaries. To entertain as well as resonate with audiences. It takes us on a truly profound journey that appreciates the versatility and timeless relevance of Shakespeare’s works whilst simultaneously breathing new life into its interpretation.

A must-see this season!

When: 13 June - 9 July

Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre


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