'King Lear' or 'They told me I was everything!'

King Lear, William Shakespeare
National Theatre, Thursday 23rd January 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo 

Sam Mendes’ thrilling production of ‘King Lear’ should come with a rating. Lear might be one of Shakespeare’s most family-orientated plays but family friendly it is not. There is an eye gouging so gruesome you’ll want to wretch and more bloody deaths than an un-cut Tarantino movie. There is also a performance from Simon Russell Beale that is so modest yet so moving, that it’ll just about cut your heart in two.

Mendes is known for his visual flair but this is one of his most restrained productions – and all the more powerful for it. Anthony Ward’s set is mottled black and composed of little more than a few marble slabs. There are some flamboyant set pieces, such as a gigantic statue of Lear and a huge dead deer, but this is a predominantly pared back production. Beale’s Lear spends a lot of time wandering about a nearly empty stage, as if even the theatre has deserted him.

The costume is contemporary and simple. Lear’s court is packed with soldiers in smart black uniform, his Fool’s only flourish is a silly hat and bastard-son Edmund is dressed in a smart suit. Everything and everyone looks fairly normal, which is refreshing for a play so often drowned in ceremony.

One thinks of Lear and imagines fierce tempests and fiery old men screaming out to the cracked winds. But this elegant production is the calm before the storm; it is still and contained, vulnerable and human. The only excess that Mendes goes for is in the size of his cast. A legion of soldiers surrounds Lear. When the soldiers are expelled by Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Reagan, it is as if Lear’s strength and sanity is leaving with them.

Beale spends most of his time in a straggly cardigan or in white boxer shorts and is one of the least regal Lear’s you’ll ever see. His hair is grey, his hands have a slight tremor and his body is hunched. He is a petty and small King; an observer of his own life, who applauds the stream of flatterers that engulf him. When Lear is turned out by his daughters, it is not the fall of a great man we are witnessing – but the fall of the everyman.

The rest of the cast is equally restrained and reachable. Adrian Scarborough’s Fool is a melancholy entertainer; more Lear’s funny old friend than an out-dated court jester. Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril is insecure and lonely, engulfed by the shadow of her sexy sister Regan (an extravagantly spiteful Anna Maxwell Martin). Sam Troughton’s Edgar is a study in controlled venom and Tom Brooke’s Mad Tom is always believable, even when stark naked and caked in mud.

Spearheaded by Beale’s brilliant and humble performance, this exemplary cast brings Shakespeare’s masterful tragedy down to a heart-breakingly human level. When Lear meets his old friend Gloucester on the moor, it is like watching two old men nattering at the bus-stop. And when Beale’s Lear is tied up in a strait jacket, he turns out and stares directly at the audience, his eyes clear and steady once more. For just one moment, he is each and every one of us and his fate, our own. 


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