Blackfella King Lear

Athena Rogers in conversation with Tom E Lewis
Malthouse Theatre

As a play set in 17th century Medieval England that follows the turmoils of a king and his three daughters, Shakespeare’s King Lear seems, at first, to be an unlikely choice for an Indigenous theatre adaptation. Yet, from the 11th to the 27th of October the Malthouse Theatre in conjunction with the Melbourne Festival will be presenting Shadow King, a reinterpretation of the famous tragedy starring an all-Indigenous cast. Right Now’s Ev Tadros spoke to co-creator and lead actor, Tom E. Lewis, and discovered that the play’s exploration of issues of land and ownership, kinship and family take on a similarly powerful importance in the Indigenous context.

“We interpret what’s happening in the communities up north, how similar these stories – these Shakespearean stories – are to our day to day lives around the country in an Aboriginal world…All my dreamtime stories are in there already. I feel very enriched by finding similarities.”

Tom’s adaptation uses Indigenous song and dance to tell a story in a way that is aimed at being an invitation to discover and share indigenous culture. “The notion of spirituality comes from ourselves and our people and when we gather together we create this beautiful energy, right? There’s no differences in this world when we dance together – the spirit is one…This sort of story makes you want to dance. We’re not telling you to dance. We’re not pointing the finger at anybody and saying ‘hey this blackfella country’. We don’t do that. We’re enjoying the story so you can come and be with us”.

Shakespeare’s original words have been completely re-written for Shadow King and the story will be told in an amalgamation of modern English and various Kriol languages. This choice was clearly important for Tom, as it represents another opportunity to share something of his Indigenous culture with a wide audience even where direct translations are not provided.

“When you speak our language, it’s full of spirit. Through that meaning of words you will get the notion of what we are talking about…Kamahi [Kamahi Jordan King] plays the fool and he’s there also to play the translator – we are weaving something together. We will not take you into this arena and then hurt your ears because you don’t understand. It’s not about that. If we do that then we’ve lost the play. We want people to understand and to come with us on this journey. And that’s our responsibility – to enjoy the sounds of our language.

“It’s nice not to translate and it’s nice for you to dance with us. How about if you got a Melbourne dance company doing our Corroboree? You can take from one side of the river bank and use the other side as well because you need the banks to keep water in…It’s time for this word ‘exchange’ to explode in this country.”

Tom drew upon his own grandfather in developing the character of King Lear and it’s not hard to see why in a play that dramatises the ironic distance between seeing and truly understanding. “Most blackfella say ‘you can’t see for looking’…and he [King Lear] doesn’t see anything really. I can’t personalise it but I take the spirit from my grandfather.”

“I can learn from that spirit and I can learn from my Welsh grandfather…I belong to this camp whether I like it or not. I can draw on my great, great grandfathers and I can paddle down the river in a canoe with my grandfather on my mother’s side.

“It’s nice using our cultural gift to communicate and to enjoy ourselves – who we are. And I’m the grumpy old King but I learnt from it, you know? It’s a great notion to learn to become leaders in communities. We need leaders in our communities and maybe this is a chance to teach me something to put back…At the moment we have this precious stone that we are gonna polish up and flip it on the floor and hopefully we’ve done the right thing by our countrymen. And say if we did do that, say if we did do a really good night, then maybe the doors of the theatres will open up more and more.

“In all languages and in all spiritualties there’s the notion of one. I really enjoy that – walk with us, be with us. We’re not blaming you, we’re not singing this story. In a way, we’re sharing a tragedy.”


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