King Lear (National Theatre) with Simon Russell Beale – 18 January 2014

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When the National Theatre announced this production, to be directed by Sam Mendes and reunite him with the superb Simon Russell Beale I was rather excited to see the results, booking a ticket for Saturday’s preview. I admit from the outset that King Lear is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. However I thoroughly enjoyed this interpretation. It is very clear and would be easy to follow for anyone new to the play, something I think is hugely important in continuing to bring new audiences to theatre and Shakespeare in particular. One of my personal problems with King Lear is that I sometimes feel that it starts to drag on and I become distracted, but at 3 hours 25 minutes (including the interval), the fact this production also held my attention throughout and seemed to fly by highlights how engaging the production itself is.

This is primarily due to the strength of most of the cast and also some interesting and exciting choices of direction, which I’ll mention later. Staged in modern dress, the play opens in a corporate-style war room, evoking thoughts of military dictatorships in World War II. Indeed, Simon Russell Beale’s Lear begins very much as a dictator and I found myself drawing comparisons with his portrayal of Stalin in the Collaborators in terms of his movement and presence on stage in the early scenes. The opening scene is staged with Lear on stage with his back to the audience, sitting as if to pass sentence on his three daughters before him and Simon Russell Beale captures well the violent anger of Lear at Cordelia’s refusal to follow his orders, demonstrating that this Lear is already a little unhinged. As the play progresses, his performance captures wonderfully his loss of control and descent in to madness, as he becomes more and more childlike. I particularly enjoyed his later scenes with Cordelia and Kent and found his final moments very moving, during which you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre.

There are also some other very strong performances. Olivia Vinnell follows on from her wonderful Desdemona with a strong performance as Cordelia. I still however find myself wishing that Shakespeare had given her a bigger role in the story. Kate Fleetwood is very good as Goneril and Stanley Townsend is a strong Kent, whose loyalty and friendship for Lear is one of the few genuinely warm relationships in the play. My favourite though was Anna Maxwell-Martin’s superb performance as Regan – brilliantly seductive and malevolent. The threat she poses and her desire for power is never in question and was a refreshing change from the light characters I have seen her play previously (plus she had some stunning costumes). Adrian Scarborough’s Fool comes across as being far less of a Fool than in other productions I’ve seen and his interaction with Lear works well. My one complaint would be that I wish that he had been used more.

Tom Brooke as Edgar was a surprising choice for me, in large part due to me imagining him as more suited to Edmund. I personally thought he played the role of Poor Tom far more convincingly than that of Edgar, which I just didn’t find believable in the early scenes. His portrayal of Poor Tom was very well acted and became incredibly moving by the end of the play. Sam Trougton is a fine actor and he plays Edmund’s deviousness well. However for me his portrayal lacked the depth needed to make the character a genuine threat, although this may develop during the run.

Overall I thought the modern dress staging and set worked well, with the military-style corporate mood matching the tone of the story and the grasping for power by different factions. I am however still undecided about the African plain-style setting for the final scenes, which caused me to start to focus too much on thinking about where the action was set rather than on the story itself, something that I hadn’t found myself doing up to that point. I did however find this to be an engaging and overall satisfying production.

SPOILER AHEAD – One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of this production for me is a change to the usual approach of a particular scene and so I suggest you do not read further if you wish to remain surprised.

This concerns the fate of the Fool, which I’ve not seen dealt with on stage in this manner before. The text simply has Lear refer to the fact that his Fool has been hanged, which seems unsurprising after the terrible treatment of Gloucester. Here however it is Lear himself who, in a violent outburst as he starts to deteriorate, murders the Fool in a scene that I found more shocking than the torture of Gloucester. It was in fact so unexpected that at first I did not quite believe he was dead. I found this choice by Sam Mendes to be very interesting and exciting, as it makes us think about the text anew. It is arguably very plausible that in such a deteriorated mental state Lear would commit such an act and then simply forget or not realise what has happened, choosing instead to believe the Fool met a different fate. This is another reason I love seeing Shakespeare on stage – there is always something fresh that can be brought to the stage to open it up for discussion. I will be interested to hear what other people’s reactions were to this directorial choice. 

The production opens on Thursday 23rd January, with an initial run of dates announced until 25th March. Check the National Theatre website for availability. Further dates will go on sale in February and day seats are available at the box office each morning.  

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