Following his box office success with the Bond film Skyfall and his recent stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sam Mendes really is the director with the Midas touch. Naturally, upon hearing that the National’s latest production of King Lear was being directed by Mendes, I expected great things. Whether you were made to study King Lear at school, or are someone that has seen countless renditions, most people will have some level of familiarity with this canonical tale.
We find Lear (Simon Russell Beale) holding court to try and decide how best to divide his land between his three daughters. Lear believes that the degree to which each daughter loves and cares for him should be proportionate to the amount of land that they should inherit. His oldest two children Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) are forthcoming with exclamatory proclamations and false statements that Lear is the only person that they love in the entire universe, flattery that Lear finds very pleasing to hear. However, when Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) expresses her true love for him, she speaks plainly explaining that she loves him as a daughter should. Cordelia’s honest retort angers Lear so much that he decides to disown her. A bad judgement, and one that sparks a bleak series of events that ultimately lead to his demise.
The backbone of any production of King Lear is establishing Lear as a powerful and well respected figure at the start of the piece so that his descent into madness at the end of the play is a shocking and dramatic transformation. Mendes accentuates Lear’s military prowess by surrounding him with a forty strong army of men at whom he barks orders in a manner that borders on an impersonation of Brian Blessed. However, as his power and control over his own fate begin to fade, his number of followers also deplete rapidly, until a pint-sized Beale is left exposed, vulnerable and all alone – albeit with the blinded Earl of Gloucester, the beggar Poor Tom and his Fool, who are the only men willing to stand by his side.
There is an undeniable sense of foreboding that permeates magnificently throughout this production. It is cleverly accomplished through the use of projections of dark storm clouds and the sound of thunderclaps during the scene changes, which would suddenly disappear as soon as the scene started, exploring the idea that Lear’s inevitable demise is perpetually lurking in the background. Although using pathetic fallacy isn’t a particularly subtle or novel device, in this instance it was extremely effective.
Beale is everything you could hope for in a Lear; he embodies the titular character’s psychological torment splendidly. His performance is, however, indebted to the superb supporting cast including Anna Maxwell Martin’s sultry and vindictive Regan who venomously shrieks with glee as Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out. For me, some of the finest and memorable moments were those shared between Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) and Edgar (Tom Brooke). Gloucester, blind and unaware that the man leading him and providing comfort in his time of need is in fact his illegitimate son in disguise (as the beggar man Poor Tom), makes for some very heartfelt and moving exchanges. Brooke’s unhinged and whimsical nature as Edgar is both captivating and intriguing.
This production of King Lear is tragic, comic and has a haunting quality that lingers in the air long after you have left the Olivier Theatre. It really is a stellar piece of theatre, though if you are prone to being squeamish I’d highly recommend that you look away during the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out with a spoon…
King Lear is at the National until 25 May, and will be broadcast live in cinemas worldwide on 1 May. For tickets and more information visit the National Theatre website.