wed 24/07/2024

King Lear, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

King Lear, National Theatre

King Lear, National Theatre

Simon Russell Beale's Lear budges up to make room for Mendes's vision

Like daughter like father? Anna Maxwell Martin and Simon Russell Beale in 'King Lear'

Sam Mendes thinks King Lear is a bigger play than it is. In a new staging he directs at the National Theatre, he wants it to be about a convulsion of nations, a reordering of borders, bombing populations. When Lear arrives to carve his kingdom into three - entirely in his own self-interest, not his daughters’ (in the play) - over 30 soldiers are stood to attention rear stage.

The illusion suggests 300 and proposes that this is a ruler whose every command is enforced by the mere shouldering of hundreds of guns. Shakespeare’s Lear is in charge, or his “authority” (as Kent states), is. No one and nothing else is.

Soldiers occupy this production regularly and with, at crucial moments, such as the post-hunt scene in Goneril’s house, snarling, macho prominence. So militarily garbed is everyone in it at some point - by the end’s war scenes Edmund, Regan and Albany look incredibly natty in Nazi-esque leather and boots - you’d be forgiven for thinking that King Lear has become Richard III or Visconti’s The Damned.

Mendes likes uniforms, and bellicose effects. This man directs James Bond, for God’s sake. The roar of attacking aircraft just as, with Cordelia’s return, the failed battle for England starts is reminiscent of the crashing jet noises in Nicholas Hytner’s Putin/Chechnya Hamlet at the Olivier three years ago. That’s the World War Three setting. At the centre of it is, of course, a performance many have been waiting for, Simon Russell Beale’s in the lead.

Beale is a most technical actor. His king limps and stoops, and can get very physical, as when he overturns two tables after Cordelia’s refusal to brown-nose. (Beale has said that in rehearsal this caused him to tear a bicep, which, bandaged, works well later when he’s lost the plot and is wearing less.) He’s brilliant with fleeting, apparently throwaway gestures: wriggling fingers to suggest encroaching brainlessness; scratching an ear; bringing out a bottle of pills to medicate his fury at Kent’s enchainment.

But there’s a stature problem. Beale is not a big man - he is quite rotund - and there’s a belief challenge when he glares up in hatred at Goneril (Kate Fleetwood, pictured right with Sam Troughton), and is simply smaller than the Fool (Adrian Scarborough, marvellously understated). When he rips, thrillingly, into Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin, sexy, slight and skinny) the thought occurs that this enraged man could, should, easily break her arms. Beale’s Lear wouldn’t dare do. You can’t believe he would. But see below (spoiler).

It is unfair to judge an actor by his physique. Beale’s Lear is always compellingly alert, mobile and - furious. That’s a bigger problem. He’s pretty well foolish, if not fond, from the off, and in some important scenes before he goes utterly gaga he’s unable to modulate a sometimes really gabbled shoutiness that is the register of his performance throughout. He’s shouty and cross when he wakes up, too, after the “storm” in him has passed and he recognises Cordelia. Why?

This is far from the only “why?” Mendes provokes. Outside Goneril and Cornwall’s residence suddenly stands (in the Kent-enchainment scenes) a humungous, Stalin-like statue of “Lear”. It further underlines the director’s erroneously politicised view of this play as being about a dictator idolised by millions. There is no evidence in Shakespeare. The play is about young versus old, indoors versus outdoors, predestination versus free will, God and atheism... Far worse is what happens in the mock trial scene when - spoiler here, so jump to the next paragraph if you wish - Lear insanely clubs the Fool to death in a bath tub: gratuitous nonsense Mendes has pinched from (say) Tarantino.

This is overbearingly a director’s King Lear. One gets the sense that Beale - a cerebral, supremely articulate actor - has not been allowed to fight enough for his own king inside Mendes’s big picture. That said, nobody is bad. Stanley Townsend’s Kent becomes winningly Irish in disguise. The nasty sisters are often very funny. Olivia Vinall as Cordelia (pictured above left with Beale) emotes too much at the start but is exemplarily touching at the end. Sam Troughton’s bespectacled Edmund is smart, business-like and cut-throat.

Tom Brooke’s nonchalant Edgar becomes a courageously loin-naked Poor Tom, dignified and low-key as the part turns more choric. As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer (pictured right) is affecting as an especially straight, decent Lear-loyalist, though no wimp, practically strangling to get Edmund’s treacherous letter-by-Edgar out of him that sets that family collapse in train. Gloucester’s blinding in a basement by Cornwall (Michael Nardone) is very well done: chilling, Godfather-style; filmic, unsurprisingly.

Beale is at his best in the long, mad scene with Gloucester, be-hatted and trussed up in a surgical wrap, mainly because he doesn’t hurt his voice and can play the miniaturist comedian - meant in the best sense - he’s always excelled at. If he doesn’t hit tragedy, it’s because Mendes has had other ideas.


Greg Hicks, RSC. Hicks occupies the part with brisk and inventive intensity.

Derek Jacobi, Donmar Warehouse. A thrilling chamber version, though even at 72 Jacobi still seems too spry

Glenda Jackson, Old Vic. Jackson returns to the stage as an authoritative Lear, gender irrelevant

Grigori Kozintsev, 1971 Russian film version. Truly apocalyptic masterpiece, stunningly performed

Tatsuya Nakadai, Kurosawa's Ran. Lear-inspired epic of the futility of war

Jonathan Pryce, Almeida Theatre. Pryce heads a disturbingly dysfunctional family in a compelling production of Shakespeare's tragedy

Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides. Jonathan Miller's vivid production puts Lear in a Yorkshire accent

Antony Sher, RSC. Sher runs the full delivery gamut in Gregory Doran's distinguished production

John Shrapnel, Tobacco Factory. A traditional Lear triumphs in the heat of Bristol's alchemical vessel

Aleh Sidorchik, Shakespeare's Globe. Belarus Free Theatre stages Lear as post-Soviet Oedipal X-Factor extravaganza


One gets the sense that Beale has not been allowed to fight enough for his own king inside Mendes’s big picture


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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This review confirms my own feeling about this wilful production, in which a very talented director has imposed his own vision on a great play to its detriment. To my mind, it deals with issues and emotions which are timeless, and it is a mistake to set it in a time specific context, whether ancient or modern. I don't think making Lear a military dictator really works, while the modern setting is anachronistic; the play's text has to accommodate fools, whipping, the stocks, swordplay and an hereditary monarchy, and the need to get round this causes all sorts of problems. My main other criticism is the lack of ease most of the cast have with Shakespearean language, while the speed of vocal delivery at times garbles the words. Beale was fine, especially from the storm scene to the end, but could have been so much better in a more nuanced production. I thought Gloucester and the Fool were first rate; unfortunately, the highly praised Edmund was indisposed when I saw it. For me, the best Lear of the past 20 years remains the 1997 Richard Eyre/Ian Holm version .

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