King Lear review – veteran Robert Menzies leads a minimalist take on Shakespeare tragedy

<span>‘Like a fish in water’ … Robert Menzies in Bell Shakespeare's King Lear.</span><span>Photograph: Brett Boardman</span>
‘Like a fish in water’ … Robert Menzies in Bell Shakespeare's King Lear.Photograph: Brett Boardman

It’s been almost a decade since the last mainstage Australian production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of mad monarchy, bad dads, ambitious children and a world unravelling towards apocalypse.

In the intervening years, we have seen the rise and rise of star-casting, as theatre companies compete for our increasingly spare dollars by building productions around big names. International stages have offered up modern Lears, with Ian McKellen in ceremonial military attire and a retinue in fatigues; contemporary Lears, with Glenda Jackson in civvies and Killing Eve’s Danny Sapani in the slick attire of a politician; and even an ancient one, with Kenneth Branagh in animal skins.

Bell Shakespeare, in contrast, reacts to the times we’re in with a minimalist Lear with stripped-back design and costuming, any contemporary resonances in the mind’s eye of the beholder. Where most recent Lear productions have leaned epic, this one is resolutely intimate: told unmiked and in the round in the tiny Neilson Nutshell theatre in Pier 2/3. (In Melbourne, it will show in the Art Centre’s slightly larger Fairfax Theatre). Instead of the now-standard big-screen star, Lear is played by Australian stage veteran Robert Menzies. For costumes, the actors are mostly in theatre blacks. The play, this production seems to say, is the thing.

It’s an alluring concept. Lear is a play of big emotions, frustrated ambitions and family spats – and how better to make these felt by the audience than in an intimate, even claustrophobic space? There’s also an argument – as always, with Shakespeare – for letting the language do the heavy lifting.

Of course, Bell’s staging approach also, inherently, presents challenges – foremost of which is the fact that key scenes are necessarily performed with the actors facing only part of the audience.

Related: Benjamin Millepied’s Romeo and Juliet Suite review – a surprising, often thrilling experience

The production, directed by artistic director Peter Evans, doesn’t take best advantage of the opportunities – or entirely overcome the challenges. Among a large cast with varying levels of experience, the delivery is a mixed bag: while Shakespeare veterans such as Menzies and James Lugton (playing Gloucester) are like fish in water, and Shakespeare and Bell regulars such as Lizzie Schebesta (Goneril) and Janine Watson (Kent) know what they’re doing, other cast members struggle at times to find a cadence and inflection that gives the lines their sense. For Lear devotees, the effect may be negligible – but for those less familiar with the text, it presents frustrating stumbling blocks.

This was compounded by acoustic troubles: lines were at times muddy and hard to hear, particularly if an actor’s back was turned to you; in some scenes they were competing with the sound design.

But even when line delivery was clear and meaningful, fantastic lines and scenes galloped past, leaving barely a moment to feel their meaning. The pacing and relentless momentum makes the play’s quick-fire character transformations even harder to process – and undercuts the profound emotionality of key moments.

All these issues may ease as the production settles into its long run, but there are more fundamental challenges. Lear’s greatest strength – its beating heart – is its resonant human tragedy: a once-formidable man losing his sense of identity and purpose, and then his mind; of fathers estranged from their children; of fatal misjudgments, misunderstandings and missed connections. If you’re not drawing tears from the audience, why do this play?

It’s inevitably harder to do this when the audience – even when close to the action on stage – can’t see the protagonists’ faces. In the title role, Menzies gives a credible and moving performance, presenting (as many actors have) a physicality consistent with dementia – shaking, fluttering, agitated hands, an increasingly stooped posture and a gaze that alternates between focused and blank. But when his back is turned to a swathe of the audience at any given time, it’s hard to feel the full effect of his performance, which inevitably undercuts the power of the crucial, climactic scenes.

The stage design by Anna Tregloan is visually seductive (all gleaming gold and reflective brass) and conceptually elegant – positioning the action between a void-like black disc on the stage and a sculpture of the solar system above it – without necessarily being revelatory. Coupled with sound and lighting cues, it focuses the audience’s attention on the play’s pagan and astrological references – which is interesting, but doesn’t necessarily elucidate the action or characters.

Again, for audience members who know Lear, this is unlikely to detract from the experience – but for those encountering it for the first time, this design is a little too withholding, and compounds a sense that this production lacks a clear throughline or thesis. Like any Shakespeare play, Lear is many things, but the most impactful productions tend to hang their hats on particular threads: social violence, political machinations, family dynamics.

Those who bring their own expectations about Lear to the theatre may find them reinforced or possibly confounded. Those who encounter it for the first time will get the broad strokes of what the play is and can be. But this is not a production that holds forth the promise of revelation.

King Lear is on at the Neilson Nutshell, Pier 2/3, in Sydney until 20 July, then Arts Centre Melbourne 25 July – 11 August