I’ve always had a certain sympathy for Lear but perhaps I’ve been swayed by previous productions when he has come across as a bit of an innocuous silly old fool who loses his marbles.
Sam Mendes, our hottest director of the moment, presents an entirely unlikable King Lear at the National Theatre. This is a brute of a man; a thug and military leader who is both selfish and vain and entirely undeserving of any compassion.
So, by the time we see his downfall, dressed in a surgical gown and tottering around the stage with IV drips hanging from his arms, there was a little bit of me that celebrated his demise.
The splendid Simon Russell Beale, as Lear, spends almost the entire production raging – either at his daughters, his retinue, or at the heavens. It’s a powerful and sometimes terrifying sight but his fearsome roar is mightier than his bite. As king he can command vast armies but can’t get his three daughters to toe the line.
Mendes uses the vast Olivier stage at the NT to good effect, with it bathed in a rolling video backdrop of oncoming storms (as opposed to those thundering outside the venue).
But the stage itself is spartan and under-dressed, with a few thrift store table and chairs, as though we were in the old East Germany or one of the Eastern Bloc states back in the days before the fall of communism.
There is no rich throne for the king, or regalia. Everyone in this modern-dress interpretation is rather sombrely or military attired - except the sadistic and flirtatious Regan, Lear’s second daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) who skips around in a sexy sheer negligee dress or luxury fur coat.
Lear sits with his back to the audience to ask his daughters to attest to their love for him. The eldest, Goneril, along with Regan, come up with the goods and are rewarded. The youngest, Cordelia, seemingly lets the old man down and is banished from his sight.
But before he has time to draw breath Lear is emasculated by his girls, his guard all but removed and his power sapped. The weaker he becomes the more vulnerable the country looks for war.
Running through Shakespeare’s tragic tale is that of another naïve father, The Earl of Gloucester, who faces similar problems to Lear but with his two sons, the bastard and scheming Edmund (Sam Troughton, now back in voice after losing it in preview) and the slacker, legitimate heir, Edgar (Tom Brooke).
Treachery is a big theme throughout. Poor Gloucester (Stephen Boxer), betrayed by Edmund, is tortured (to the delight of the blood-thirsty Regan who seems to get off on the violence).
It makes for uneasy watching as he’s first water-boarded, then has both eyes put out with a corkscrew in a particularly bloody bit of staging that resulted in the first night audience hearing a sickening pop as it occurred. It was a very queasy end to the first half!
Meanwhile a falsely accused Edgar goes on the run and assumes the identity of a mad beggar (minus all his clothes) before showing his true worth and coming to the aid of his broken father.
By the time Cordelia mounts a paramilitary rescue mission with her husband, the King of France, Lear is too far gone to be saved. True to form the Bard cuts a swathe through his characters with the relish of Tarantino.
The bearded and shaven-headed Beale, looking remarkably like film director Mike Leigh who was sitting behind me (and squirming with the embarrassment of it) is on top form but there are times when it feels as though he’s grandstanding with the rest of the large company of actors detached, and themselves, standing on stage, watching a master at work.
It’s a lengthy production – with the first half lasting two, bum-numbing hours – but powerfully told. Maxwell-Martin’s voice sounds a little reedy off screen and in a vast auditorium, but she plays the vixen well. The ever reliable Stanley Townsend comes up with a compassionate Earl of Kent, one of the few sympathetic characters in the whole story, though sometimes the Irish accent is a little too strong to entirely understand.
King Lear runs at the National Theatre until the end of May. Tickets are sold out until the end of March so check for availability with the box office 020 7452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
*Don’t worry if you can’t get a ticket. Lear will be broadcast to Leighton Buzzard and Aylesbury Waterside Theatres, plus more than 500 others in the UK, on May 1 as part of the NT Lives series. For full details visit www.ntlive.com
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