Long before Succession’s Logan Roy, there was Shakespeare’s aging monarch King Lear. The character written 400 years ago is famous for his angry outbursts and seemingly rash decisions as he descends into “madness” (often interpreted as dementia in contemporary readings). He’s “exceedingly unpleasant at times,” says Bell Shakespeare’s artistic director Peter Evans. “But he’s also pitiable, and he has revelations that are profound. So our relationship with the character is complex.”

Evans is bringing King Lear back to the stage in a new intimate setting – performed in the round – at Neilson Nutshell in Sydney and at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio. It’s 14 years since Bell Shakespeare has staged the play, and its latest production has veteran actor Robert Menzies (who’s played Polonius in Hamlet and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet for the company) taking on the titular role.

“Poetically, he makes sense,” Evans tells Broadsheet. “I was really interested in the generational side of it, and Robert’s getting older, so the frailty of King Lear is really interesting. It’s like the last sparks of a dying star. We’re left with this person who is railing at the world in his decline, and I think most of us have seen that in people in our lives. And Robert is not afraid of that. He’s not afraid of the ugly bits, and he’s very good at humility as well.”

Never miss a Sydney moment. Make sure you're subscribed to our newsletter today.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

If you haven’t seen or read King Lear since high school, Evans says it’s interesting to have such a large cast to play with. “There are nine or 10 leading parts in this play, which is more like a Shakespearean comedy, and so, with all of those balls in the air, I think the play is quite overwhelming, because there’s so much coming at you from so many angles.”

Joining Menzies on stage is Tamara Lee Bailey as Regan, Lizzie Schebesta as Goneril and Melissa Kahraman as Cordelia – King Lear’s three daughters. The story follows a breakdown in family and society as the monarch divides up his assets to his children. “Once he carves it up we get a power vacuum. We get chaos. There’s a lot at stake. The play explores ambition and the cruelty people go to for power,” Evans says.

The set design, by Anna Tregloan, includes a sculptural model of the solar system extending out over the audience. “It’s a world of pagan gods – so the set designers have created a very elegant and beautiful world. It’s very aspirational, and I think that’s also important as the thing [King Lear] is dividing up is not nothing. It’s the known world to these people.”

Two young actors to watch in this production are Alex King, who plays Edgar, and Darius Williams, who plays Edmund. “Alex is a remarkable young actor – and she’s in disguise for a large portion of the play. Then Darius as Edmund is like an Iago figure [the notoriously scheming villain in Othello]. He’s a Machiavellian character whose politics are pure self-interest. When you talk about relevance, I think we’ve come to recognise that this is a powerful political tool. I certainly hear the character differently nowadays.”

Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear is on at The Neilson Nutshell from June 20 to July 20, then at Arts Centre Melbourne from July 26 to August 11. $40–$110.

bellshakespeare.com.au/king-lear