King Lear at the National Theatre
Appropriate stormy weather set the scene for King Lear last night, as the audience huddled in from cold winds and slanting rain. This much-anticipated production from Sam Mendes for the National Theatre has divided the kingdom of criticism in two: Simon Russell Beale has been hailed as a sensation – he has won with other great Shakespearean roles, including as Hamlet in 2000 – but there are moments of flashiness from Mendes that, at times, cause a perilous wobble in the overall smoothness of the production.
The opening scene is horrid beyond expected horridness, and doesn’t make for a good start. It is a present day totalitarian state, with a sparse set but for a large conference table set across the stage, rigged with microphones. Lear files in – with his numerous armed guards – and sits with his back to the audience, demanding public shows of affection from each of his three daughters in turn. Goneril and Regan make empty vows of adoration, before Cordelia – played movingly by Olivia Vinall – professes to love her father no more than her “bond” requires, thus initiating the bitter events that follow. But the vocals boom and hiss, the microphones emphasising the sense of public display but simultaneously detracting from the severity of the scene. In this vein the staging jarred throughout, with touches of detail that seemed superfluous.
The harsh militaristic set suited other scenes better. Lear’s arrival at Goneril’s house after the rash division of his kingdom is heralded with bawdy songs from his guard, a life-size rather beautiful slain deer with bloodied neck flung across the great table, the perfect setting for Adrian Scarborough’s gibbering fool. But such scenes are often upset by flashy ones: Lear beats the fool to death in a bathtub, the “blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” monologue is delivered from a raised plinth, part impressive and part downright perilous. Sometimes militaristic, sometimes pastoral, the set eschews continuity and at times there seems a great confusion of these two categories.
But the performances outweigh these quibbles, and the words speak for themselves. Lear’s daughters are glamorous, manicured horrors – Kate Fleetwood plays Goneril with such tension, while Anna Maxwell Martin is a flirtatious Regan. Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester invites much pathos as he wanders the stage with bloodied eyes, and Sam Troughton excels as the wily conniving Edmund, with some comedy and much venom. Tom Brooke does an interesting and brilliantly mad “poor Tom”/Edgar combination. Russell Beale, raving and stomping about the stage, flying into furies, is an unorthodox and superbly convincing Lear. In madness, he is twitching and childlike, corporeal and thoroughly pitiful.
There is much chemistry, and the final scene, in which Lear staggers in holding aloft his favourite dead daughter, is gut-wrenchingly vindicating.
King Lear is at the National Theatre until 28th May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.