King Lear – National Theatre

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In the programme notes of this much anticipated King Lear director Sam Mendes makes reference to working on a big canvas. They don’t come much bigger than this. The scale on which this Lear has been produced is quite remarkable. But size as we all know isn’t always everything.

The enormous Olivier stage is filled from beginning to end with people and with bold settings that often furnish this Lear with a great clarity but also add to its overblown feel at times. This must surely be one of the first Lear’s ever that actually provides a fully furnished house for the normally rather adrift looking Gloucester. It is also a simple but inspired choice to give Regan her own funeral scene upon the death of her husband, certainly a first for me.

Lear’s Knights are represented not with the usual one or two spear carriers that we are used to but with an army of around thirty extras that fill the scenes with the chaos and debauchery that we normally only hear reference to in the play. Does all of this help to tell the story though? Well it certainly gives us a sense of scale and helps to better feel Lear’s loss as his retinue reduces, but it also distracts from the human story, the vulnerability of an ailing man and the savages of a disintegrating family.

By portraying Lear as a ruthless Stalin-esque dictator that is clearly reviled by the court we are cut short on the emotion. The complication to Lear is that this King that has held such a tight hold to his country and to his court for so long is still a man that should be respected and loved by some of those closest to him. The sacrifices made by Gloucester and Kent seem unbelievable when there appears to be nothing likable about the man.

At the tender age of just 53 Simon Russell Beale is certainly at the younger end of the spectrum to play Lear (although the great Paul Schofield was just 40 when he played the role to total acclaim for the RSC in 1962). Beale plays a thoughtful and measured monarch. He pulls off the aging process well and walking with a stoop and dragging a leg helps to give us the measure of the man. He growls and spits with rage well enough and commands a presence that impresses.

Having researched dementia Beale has spoken of the “vicious embarrassment” of the condition and the anger that is felt in moments of lucidness. He plays his mad king with an unsentimentally hard edge and keeps it cold and real.

Kate Fleetwood is a glacial Goneril with her pointy features giving a new brilliance to the icy stare. Anna Maxwell Martin disappoints with a screechy and sexless Regan. Olivia Vinall does the good work as spirited Cordelia. Stanley Townsend and Stephen Boxer both give solid and performances as Kent and Gloucester.

Sam Troughton’s peculiar portrayal of Edmund feels at odds with the rest of the hard edged production. More accountant than warrior and lacking in the kind of sex appeal that would win over the two vipers of Goneril and Regan he sheepishly skirts around the stage and never fully owns it.

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It is Adrian Scarborough that stands out from the supporting crowd. He quietly lurks in the background for most of the action observing and reacting. He is the one that is in the know the most and sees everyone for what they really are. Scarborough gives a great sense that he has Lear’s back which makes his untimely and unusual demise all the more shocking.

There is much to love about this production but it has become overlong and overblown. Sam Mendes has moved from blockbuster film James Bond, to monster musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before this. Had he been able to downsize a little more there could have been brilliance here but instead it often comes close, but never quite reaches it.

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