King Lear may have a reputation as the summit of Shakespeare’s craft as a tragedian but it is a play that too often eludes the director and exposes the shortcomings of the actor who plays the king.
The story is of an aging tyrant monarch who inexplicably decides to abdicate and partition his realm between his three daughters. When his favourite daughter, Cordelia, refuses to accept his offer in suitably sycophantic words, he flies into a rage and disinherits her. The unwisdom of his decision is soon exposed as his other daughters treat him with a callousness that eventually leads him to madness and homelessness. Wandering in the wilderness as the storm rages, accompanied by a fool and a madman, Lear begins to understand the state of mankind and to show some care for the suffering of others. But this new understanding comes too late and at the play’s end, with Lear howling over the dead body of his beloved Cordelia, we are faced with the bleakest of visions of the consequences of the arrogance of Lear, the tyrant of Act 1.
The long awaited debut of Simon Russell Beale in the role of the king lives up to expectations. As Lear, a famously difficult role for any actor, Beale is by turns arrogant and pathetic. His early swagger as the self-deluded tyrant is soon eclipsed by the misery of his madness and decline. As ever, the storm scenes provide the touchstone of the production. Beale is heart rending as he begins to understand the suffering of others and he carries off the death of Cordelia just as powerfully. The high point of his performance comes with the speech “Oh reason not the need ….” as he argues with his daughters about their demand that he dismisses his unruly retinue. Beale invests these words with heartfelt pain as he begins to be able to distinguish between his thoughtless assumptions about his ‘rights’ as a former monarch and his simple human need for respect and dignity.
In interviews, Beale has explained that he studied forms of dementia to inform his portrayal of Lear. This invests his sudden rages and his occasional lapses into hallucination with a realism that strengthens his performance, but the heart of his success is his ability to speak Shakespeare’s lines in a way that is both easy to understand and worthy of the poetry.
The production is not an unqualified success. It looks good – the video projection of storm clouds is great – and way that the words and the sound of thunder are managed in the storm scene is stunning. But Mendes does not draw equally strong performances from all his large cast – the usually brilliant Anna Maxwell Martin is cartoonish as Regan, in stiletto heels even on the battlefield. Tom Brooke as Edmund convinces as the naked madman of the storm rather more than he does as the heir to the dukedom of Gloucester. Some of the violence jars – Lear’s murder of the fool misfires as a bloody hand appears from the bath in which he has been bludgeoned to death and the blinding of Gloucester provokes a horrified gasp as an eye flies across the stage. The death of Oswald provokes awkward laughter.
These reservations aside, Beale’s wonderful performance means that the production must be judged another triumph for Nicholas Hytner’s regime at the National and an unmissable opportunity to see one of our most thoughtful and appealing actors more than pass the test that Shakespeare sets.
- By William Shakespeare
- Director: Sam Mendes
- Cast includes: Simon Russell Beale, Olivia Vinall, Adrian Scarborough, Tom Brooke
- National Theatre, London
- Until 28 May 2014
- Time: 19:00
- Review by Owen Davies
- 3 February 2014