THEATRE REVIEW: King Lear

National Theatre (Olivier Theatre) / directed by Sam Mendes

22 February 2014

booking until 28 May

King Lear is always going to be a biggie to take on. It’s epic in length, in the challenges of its central role, in its stormy staging and — even as Shakespearean tragedies go — in its death toll. Sam Mendes and the company at the National Theatre don’t shy away from this, and this Lear is a big ol’ show. It’s bold staging, huge ensemble and fantastic cast make for a striking production that really packs a punch. Overall, it’s a first-rate production, and it does take you to the edge of your seat with gore, pathos and the sheer futility of the tragic outcome. Yet at times, the directorial vision takes some odd turns and goes a step too far in its scope and vision, undermining the largely great work done throughout.

Credit: National Theatre
Credit: National Theatre

However many new theatrical roles are written, I can’t see a time when Lear wouldn’t be the pinnacle of an actor’s career. Has Simon Russell Beale reached the right point to take it on? (is there ever a right time?) In age, it’s debatable — he’s a young Lear, as it goes — but in talent, there’s no question. There’s been plenty of anticipation surrounding his performance since it was announced, and Russell Beale doesn’t disappoint: he is pretty much flawless. Maintaining a hunch throughout, and covering the full range of light and shade inherent in this most tragic of characters, it is a riveting performance. It’s not a traditional Lear, nor a frail one for the most part. His undeniably short, stout frame creates a different kind of Lear, from the tyrannical — the military dictatorship setting works well — to the somehow loveable, to the pitiable. Shakespeare makes the king a rapidly-changing character, with plenty of mood swings and self-contradictions, and Russell Beale lends credibility to this oscillating personality.

As sisters and general bad eggs Regan and Goneril, Anna Maxwell Martin and Kate Fleetwood are both in fine form. Maxwell Martin (Regan) is wonderful, as ever — all fur coat and sex-kitten cruelty. Fleetwood (Goneril) is more understated, but equally unnerving in her spite and dominance of her ever-weakening father. It has to be said though, that Mendes and the cast do create a believable irritation to kick off the sisters’ anti-Lear campaign, in the form of an impressively large crowd of rowdy ‘knights’ who even dump a huge dead stag on Goneril’s refined dining table.

There is some great staging here: the opening scene is effective, with its ‘press conference’ atmosphere, booming microphone and circle of silent soldiers highlighting Cordelia’s (Olivia Vinall) gentleness — a gentleness that later becomes steeliness as Cordelia reappears, after her long absence in the play, dressed to fight. The infamous eye-gouging scene is the most gruesome I’ve seen it (the wine cellar setting allows for a horrible choice of weapon in a corkscrew), and the Fool’s death (or does he live? There is room for debate…) is a shocking, brilliantly-staged moment, as he succumbs to his master’s beating in the bathtub.

Elsewhere however, Mendes surprisingly trips up. While the stage-wide projections of sky are powerful in the storm scene, elsewhere they become cheesy: do we really need to see blue sky and white fluffy clouds floating overhead? The cornfield that appears in the second act is incredibly impressive, but again, Mendes’s filmic mindset seems to have taken over and it all feels a bit too literal. We can imagine a clear sky and a field without being shown every ray of sunshine and every stalk. It’s all a step too far, and this continues in the portrayal of Lear’s madness. While the placement of the Fool’s hat is a poignant and almost mysterious touch — did he take it from the head of the dead Fool, or did Adrian Scarborough’s effective but rather morose Fool survive after all? — but the borrowing of the flower motif from mad Ophelia, and the presence of the straitjacket and hospital bed, all threaten to over-sentimentalise what should be a starker scene: it would be all the more moving for removing some of the motifs that are overladen on the relatively short scene. Having said this, the dialogue between Lear and Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) is a suddenly, almost overwhelmingly affecting interlude.

The final, climactic scene again undoes some of the excellent work seen elsewhere. The careful, calculating Edmund (a measured and impressive performance by Sam Troughton) is dispatched so quickly that his fight with Edgar (Tom Brooke) is over before it’s barely begun, making Edgar rather more cold-hearted and less noble than is often portrayed. Similarly, Regan and Goneril’s demises come out of nowhere, leaving the whole scene feeling pretty rushed — there is no time to take in the futile devastation unfolding before our eyes. All the time is given to the tragic death of Cordelia, and Russell Beale certainly makes this a touching moment, but the time could have been more generously spread in these final moments of such an epic play.

There is no sense of redemption in Lear; no sense that evil has been overcome, or lessons learned. There is a bleakness in it that I’ve never felt in any of Shakespeare’s other works, and Mendes’s production brings out this feeling of waste, as the vibrant characters lie broken and bleeding on stage, their country torn apart by rivalry and war. All in all, sweeping a few dodgy directorial decisions under the carpet, this is a bold, striking and impressive staging, with a cast that will be hard to beat.

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