Robert Tanitch reviews King Lear at National Theatre/Olivier
Simon Russell Beale has played a wide range of Shakespearean characters: Falstaff, Timon of Athens, Leontes, Malvolio, Cassius, Benedict, Hamlet, Macbeth, Ariel, Richard III, Thersites, King of Navarre. Now he plays King Lear.
Many people think King Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest work. Awesome in its power and relentless in its horrors, it is notoriously difficult to stage and excessively long. It goes on for three and a half hours in this production with interval.
Lear, rashly, foolishly, renounces his power, whilst still wanting to keep it. He actively encourages the malevolence of his eldest daughters. If they are wicked he has only himself to blame. His ferocious temper is vile. He pays a terrible price for his sins.
The great Lears of the 20th century were John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit, Eric Porter, Paul Scofield and Yuri Jarvet in the Russian film. The great productions were by Harley Granville Barker (with Gielgud, 1940) Trevor Nunn (with Porter, 1968) and Adrian Noble (1983 and chiefly notable for the interplay between Michael Gambon and Anthony Sher as Lear and Fool).
Sam Mendes sets the play in modern times. There is a statue of Lear such as you might find in a Totalitarian state. The contrast between the idealised figure and the squat reality is a good joke. Simon Russell Beale, physically does not look right for Lear; but he is often impressive in his handling of the verse and especially in his depiction of dementia.
It is a pity that Beale has to act the storm’s opening scene on a hydraulic ramp. It’s a bad idea to put him in baggy underpants. It makes him so ugly. The hospital gown makes him look comic. The scenes which work best are the most pathetic: his reunion in hospital with Cordelia and the very final scene of all when he carries on her dead body is heartrending.
The most unexpected moment in Mendes’s production, and certainly the most memorable, but not the most original, is when Lear, already mad, is joking around with the Fool (Adrian Scarborough) when he suddenly goes completely bonkers and batters the Fool to death with a stick. In Shakespeare’s play the Fool simply disappears; and nobody know what happens to him.
Lear’s retinue of rowdy knights are able to make a big impact because of the sheer number of them on stage. The blinding of Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) is as harrowing as anybody could wish. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Regan is exceptionally common. Sam Troughton is an uncharismatic Edmund. Tom Brooke’s very odd Edgar makes the most impression when he is totally naked and pretending to be poor mad Tom. Incidentally, Beale 20 years ago also played Edgar.