King Lear Preview

King Lear National Theatre

You’ve probably not been able to get tickets to see Simon Russell-Beale’s brutish performance as King Lear at the National Theatre. Tickets sold out on the first day.

But now the production takes centre stage as the latest in the NT Live programme that allows the finest stage plays to be screened in theatres and cinemas throughout the land.

King Lear comes to a venue near you on May 1 and 8.

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 a silly old fool who misjudges his daughters and lives to regret it.

Sam Mendes, our hottest director of the moment, presented an entirely unlikable King Lear at the National Theatre. This man is a thug and military leader who is both selfish and vain and entirely undeserving of any compassion.

So, by the time you 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.

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 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 sparsely dressed with thrift store table and chairs as though we were in the old East Germany or one of the Baltic states back in the day 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, lets the old man down and is banished.

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 riper 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 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 his own son, Edmund, is tortured (to the delight of the blood-thirsty Regan who seems to get off on the violence).

He’s water-boarded and has both eyes put out with a corkscrew in a particularly bloody bit of staging that resulted in the audience hearing a sickening pop as it occurred (and a very queasy end to the first half).

Meanwhile the 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 takeover 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 Tarentino.

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 standing on stage themselves, watching in awe.

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 for such 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 understand.

King Lear runs at the National Theatre until the end of May so if you can’t get a seat then save yourself a fortune and watch it on more than 500 screens around the UK and more abroad.

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