King Lear * National Theatre

King Lear is currently running indefinitely at the National Theatre

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The eagerly anticipated King Lear at the National Theatre has, for many critics, established Simon Russel Beale – a powerfully pitiful and hubristic Lear – as one of the country’s greatest living actors. Dominic Maxwell in The Times says that Beale ‘proves once again why he is one of our great actors’, whilst Henry Hitchings in The Evening Standard said that he ‘is the best [he has] ever seen him.’
The play is staged on a (literally) cosmic scale in the Olivier Theatre, the National Theatre’s largest stage. The director, Sam Mendes, is able to fully exploit its magnitude by utilizing an army of extras, as well as producing orbiting planets above the audience through an unfathomable light and projection display. With the play’s exploration of attitudes towards celestial and cosmic movements, Mendes is able to stress to the audience the importance of lines such as Edmund’s,
‘We make guilty of our
Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were… fools by Heavenly compulsion.’
Yet, for some, the magnitude of the set became too showy and overly spectacular. The Daily Telegraph saw the vital scene of Lear in the storm as ‘spectacle for spectacle’s sake’, believing that Mendes ‘seems to be revisiting the high-tech special effects of his recent production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Lear and his Fool are hoisted high in the air on a huge pneumatic ramp.’ And I don’t think that the couple sitting behind me were totally wrong when they whispered to each other that they were reminded of The Lion King when Simba is held up high by the baboon mandrill, Rafiki, on Pride Rock.
Yet, I think they missed a trick: in the scene just before, a huge concrete statue of a proud, tall Lear stood on a podium in the middle of the stage, but only moments later is the audience presented before their eyes another Lear, a pathetic and weather-beaten one, standing on a similarly high platform. I think this cleverly, subtly, depicted the stark contrast of Lear as he was and what he has become: a hunched over, desperate old man.
Simon Russel Beale brilliantly captures Lear’s demise by portraying him as an autocratic leader enthralled by his daughters’ flattery and by the pomp and stately prestige around him. When Lear announces the division of his kingdom in the first scene, the audience is presented with a large, ceremonial occasion composed of around fifty gun-wielding soldiers around him. Everyone is shocked by the transformation of a war-hungry, strong dictator to an utterly senile, half-naked wreck later on.
The portrayal of Lear as a kind of belligerent tyrant reminded me of dictators like Stalin (who, coincidentally, Simon Russel Beale played as in the National Theatre’s 2011 production of Collaborators) but also of more recent figures such as Gadaffi, Ceaucescu and Mubarak. Even if faintly, it might be fair to say that hints of the USA’s use of torture during the Iraq War were almost present.
Adrian Scarborough was a wonderfully playful but also movingly melancholic Fool. Mendes himself provided a shocking yet skillful directorial flourish in having Lear beat the Fool to death in one of his fits of madness; in the text, the Fool mysteriously disappears for no explicit reason after Act 3.
All three of Lear’s daughters were excellent, Regan (Kate Fleetwood) especially so as a sado-masochistic sex kitten who gets a sexual thrill from the eye gauging of Goucester, done so with a cork screw. Her flirting, to put it flatteringly, throughout the play was impeccably performed, raising the stakes of her unabashed immorality when she caresses her father’s chest and professes her supposed filial love for him. Anna Maxwell Martin performed the part of Cordelia beautifully, and I felt truly indignant as Lear forces her to stand upon a chair as if to auction her away to the kings of France and Burgundy. However, her acting was almost clumsy when, in Act 5, she is armed with an AK47 and made to look like a guerrilla soldier or freedom fighter when France prepares for war.
After three and a half hours, the play concludes with an overwhelming, even physically exhausting and poignant moment when Lear carries the dead Cordelia in his arms; his quiet and breathy whispering of ‘never, never, never, never, never’ reverberating throughout the theatre.
A gargantuan production in many senses, Mendes’ King Lear strikes a note with contemporary politics and reminds one of W.B. Yeats’ thoughts,
‘We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time.’
Review by Tomos Evans
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