Friday 24 January 2014

King Lear - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes

Simon Russell Beale and Olivia Vinall

There’s a vogue at the National to thrust Shakespeare’s work into the modern era and with a nod to thrift, the military garb from the South Bank’s recent Othello is coldly furnishing forth the costume requirements of Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear. Indeed, as the closing act conflict plays out, the Dover denouement is often interrupted by the sound effect of jet fighters screaming overhead. It’s a leap in time that doesn’t always sit easily with a tale so firmly rooted in pre-Saxon history.

In an image that highlights the play's thematic plea for Lear to “see clearly”, the programme cover features a half-face close up of the bearded, brooding, Beale. The reality, at least for much of the first half is a very different King. Barely thirteen years since he delivered his career defining Hamlet, Russell Beale’s Lear, stooped and Stalin-like, scuttles around the stage suggesting a hybrid of Captain Birds Eye and Del Boy’s Uncle Albert. There are moments when his overly clipped delivery is eased off, but some noticeable early episodes of agony are squandered. His curse of sterility upon Goneril, arguably one of the most harrowing speeches written, falls short of the mark and that a few of the audience chuckled during Lear’s “O reason not the need” speech further suggests that the production still needs some fine tuning. After the break, Russell Beale excels and the moment late on, as Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia wakes him in his hospital bed is exquisite.

There is some outstanding company work on offer. Stanley Townsend’s Kent offers an energetic brute of loyalty to the King whilst Anna Maxwell Martin’s vitriolic Regan positively sizzles, first as the uncaring daughter and later as a steamily seductive merry widow. Sam Troughton’s bastard Edmund is as dark a baddy as he should be and Tom Brooke’s Edgar is an eloquent and touching interpretation of a complex soul, bravely performed nude through much of the Mad Tom storm sequence. As the Fool, Adrian Scarborough gives an intelligent interpretation to another of Shakespeare’s enigmatic characters and Mendes offers his own explanation to that Bard-Cluedo question: What exactly happens to the Fool? Well in this show he is brutally murdered: by Lear; in a bathtub; bloodily battered with the lead piping. Perhaps the standout performance amongst Lear’s court is that of Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester. Boxer effortlessly coaxes the beauty from his verse and rarely has his character’s confession “I stumbled when I saw” sounded so poignant. If Shakespeare knew that Gloucester’s blinding would entertain a blood-thirsty Elizabethan audience, so too does movie-maker Mendes who with an eye for a good visual and perhaps a nod to Quentin Tarantino, updates the hapless man's torture having him first waterboarded during the “wherefore to Dover?” interrogation before the required eye-gouging. In this production administered with a corkscrew, natch.

The production is unquestionably a brilliant King Lear, even if not one of the finest. It’s a fresh interpretation of the classic tale and its extremes of good, evil and the redemptive blessing of forgiveness prove as relevant today as ever. It’s a version that will be talked about for years and if you are lucky enough to acquire a ticket, (they are like gold dust) it is an evening very well spent.

Booking through to May 2014

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