Shakespeare’s King Lear has been re-imagined as The Shadow King by director Michael Kantor and actor Tom E Lewis who will play Lear. The play, which opens in Melbourne this week and will travel around the rest of the country next year at major arts festivals, is set in the Northern Territory and features Lewis alongside an all-indigenous cast who will perform in language to a score by Bart Willoughby.
Ruby Langton-Batty, who worked on The Sapphires and television’s Redfern (and is daughter of Marcia Langton OM), has been engaged as The Shadow King’s costume designer.
“I’m having lots of fun,” she says during a busy rehearsal break ahead of opening night. “I’ve never worked with director Michael Kantor before and the staff at Malthouse have made things really easy as well.”
“I’d been approached about two and a half years ago shortly after I’d graduated from VCA,” Langton-Batty reveals when asked about her involvement in The Shadow King. “I’d also been doing some costume design work in Sydney which the company had heard about and became interested. I think the first approach was just to sound me out as at that stage I didn’t have all that much experience.
“I’d been interested in the performing arts as well as fashion from quite a young age,” she then says when asked how she took up a career in costume designing. “And because of my mother it was always expected I’d follow her and go into academia. So I started an Arts degree but it just didn’t work for me. And I definitely didn’t want to be in the commercial world and certainly wanted to be involved in performing arts.
“That actually took me a while to realise,” she then laughs, “although I think that side of things was there the whole time.”
Earlier this year, the theatre crew ventured north to Katherine, Arnhem Land and the small outback township of Beswick to gather inspiration. It was there Langton-Batty met many of Lewis’ relatives who are mostly involved in Djilpin Arts operated by his wife, Fleur Parry, with Lewis as artistic director for the annual Walking With The Spirits Festival.
“That was such an amazing experience,” Langton-Batty says. “Tommy’s family are a beautiful group of people and the country up there is very dramatic. And seeing how people dress in Katherine was very useful even though I grew up in Darwin and had spent a lot of time up north.
“So while everything was familiar it was still very beneficial meeting Tommy’s family and seeing how they practice their art and learning about the way they interact with the land and traditional culture while also incorporating the modern world. So that really helped inform my design decisions for the show.
“And Tommy is such an amazing person to be working with,” Langton-Batty says of the actor and musician who played the title role in the 1978 Fred Schepsi film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and featured as Two Bob in the more recent The Proposition. “You only have to sit with Tommy for a few minutes to become totally inspired. I instantly feel completely invigorated.”
Langton-Batty is also currently working with another company.
“I’m working on a show for Queensland Theatre Company called The Black Diggers,” she reveals. “It’s about indigenous soldiers in WW1 and will be going to Sydney Festival next year. I’ll also be working on Coranderrk, a co-production between Ilbijerri Theatre Company from Melbourne and Sydney’s Belvoir St in December.”
The Shadow King shows at the Malthouse Theatre from October 11 to 27.
Photos by Pia Johnson