King Lear at the National Theatre, London

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Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre's King Lear – King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre’s King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

King Lear
by William Shakespeare
National Theatre, Southbank, London: April 11, 2014
continues until July 2.

The Earl of Gloucester – Stephen Boxer
Edmund – Sam Troughton
Edgar – Tom Brooke
The Duke of Albany – Richard Clothier
The Duke of Burgundy – Paapa Essiedu
Lear – Simon Russell Beale
Goneril – Kate Fleetwood
Regan – Anna Maxwell Martin
Cordelia – Olivia Vinall
The Duke of Cornwall – Michael Nardone
The Fool – Adrian Scarborough
The Earl of Kent – Stanley Townsend

Director – Sam Mendes
Designer – Anthony Ward
Lighting Designer – Paul Pyant
Music – Paddy Cuneen
Projection Designer – Jon Driscoll
Fight Director – Terry King
Sound Designer -Paul Arditti

One of the odd and unique interesting qualities of King Lear is its fantastic and vague setting in prehistoric Britain, that Shakespeare chose a tale of a king you couldn’t find in a list of the Kings and Queens of England, even while he gave the play something of a history play shape, with British Kings and princes, crises of succession and fighting with each other and France. But it isn’t a history play, it’s based on a britannic myth that was already a myth in the middle ages, and the play is set around about some time in the misty, undocumented bog before Ethelwulf, Egbert and Offa, and after Arthur, but perhaps not, maybe it predates the Romans, maybe even the Celts? It’s in a parallel timeline no doubt. Here is the play’s complete title in the first quarto of 1608:

Title page of the first 1608 quarto of William Shakespeare's King Lear. British Library, http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/homepage.html.

Title page of the first 1608 quarto of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. British Library, http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/homepage.html.

Shakespeare’s play is not really a myth either; its muddling of genre is one of its appealing qualities. Obviously the vagueness of setting gives it a universal, freely sliding transposability: the imagination — or the director — is free to place it wherever or whenever it likes. Freeing the play from a historical sequence sets the tragedy’s drama free, not to say that the drama of the history plays feels constrained but they certainly have their own quality and mood. Perhaps Shakespeare did have practical political reasons to remove the action by a degree, but I think he might also have had less prosaic reasons. Lear’s near-fantastic setting acts on the imagination to give us a special sort of tug which draws us into an otherwise revolting story, with its graphic violence, domestic and otherwise. In bringing the action into the present day, as this National Theatre production does, or more specifically the mid-20th century, there is always the risk of flattening this sense of mythical wonder with the mundaneness of suits and wingtips and conference rooms. (There were no lab coats, or anyone who could be contrived as a rocket or nuclear scientist, anyway, not even the cynical and pseudo-rationally-minded Edmund.) On the other hand other Lears have done well in period-specific historical settings and nearly anything could go.

This Lear is something of a britannic fascist dictator, at least so he seems in the first scenes: he stomps about his “palace” forcefully, wearing a frozen-on frown and a sinister-looking military uniform, spreading fear about unpredictably, indiscriminately, before even opening his mouth. His throne room is a sort of conference room where he seats himself imposingly facing long tables with folding chairs and microphones lined up, his back to the audience (the People?) which disconcertingly makes us feel part of the scene by snubbing us. The room is ringed by Black Shirts in perfect geometric formation. He barks nearly expressionlessly into his microphone, and his daughters nervously respond into theirs, as if some kind of corporate board meeting, or a puppet parliamentary “debate” of Dorothy Dixers. Amplified speech is in general very cold-sounding, mechanical, the sort of tone of “voice” which neither expects nor desires an unplanned response, or a more articulate one than collective crowd sounds (which, incidentally, is one good reason it has no place in opera). It is a very clever updating of the play in a way — it does manage to produce the coldest opening scene of Lear I could imagine — but it can be very glossy, very slick, and quite obvious, almost to the point of reintroducing the didactic qualities of the pre-Shakespeare tellings of the Lear fable. The style is flashy, almost cinematic. There is much low angled, raking light, making for dramatic, contrasty half- or three-quarter-lit faces, which must look more expressive in a close-up than in a large theatre. The sounds effects were very slick and loud, ending up with swooping fighter jets and helicopters near the end, and a big thump of the bass drum marked the ends of scenes, as the lights flicked out.

Kate Fleetwood as Goneril, Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan, Simon Russell Beale as King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

Kate Fleetwood as Goneril, Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan, Simon Russell Beale as King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

The updating of the play “worked” in the sense that it wasn’t disloyal to “the text,” but it often met the text in a superficial, heavily graphic way, to the point that one couldn’t help getting the sense that the production was showing off a bit. “Look at this! He has his hand in his crotch! And it fits the text!” This plays up to the audience too, and drew a few laughs for it. It makes the update to a fascist fantasy kingdom in Britain believable to a modern audience, but more in the way pessimistic sci-fi films are believable, simply projecting the day’s news into the near future; without philosophy it isn’t enough as a statement or point of view. The astrological references got laughs, Gloucester’s as well as Edmund’s, and they do seem harder to update. Perhaps the science has advanced too far in that area for these references to be intuitively understood. The element of fortune, as the old title page indicates, is important and nowadays perhaps better understood in, for instance, economic terms?

The play of course wasn’t all obviousness, and was all in all enjoyable theatre, thanks much to the acting. Simon Russell Beale, so terribly cold in the first scene, didn’t hold much back in the violent argument with Goneril. But, far beyond dramatic terror, his lonely wandering Lear of later acts was actively absorbing in the natural spoken dialogue, his speeches were quite conversational (with the Fool). He was at his best with Adrian Scarborough who acted as an equal, so one ended up looking forward to those scenes. The Fool is the freest and most human character in the play, at least he seemed it in this performance, Adrian Scarborough acting with élan and nimbleness and real wit. He moves very well, covering the whole stage — several times — in his first scene. His jives and jokes had a natural delivery, and never seemed downright nor heavy nor out of character. Sam Mendes has talked about his research into different forms of dementia, even diagnosing Lear with one of them, so he puts the old ex-king in a hospital gown and later a strait jacket and then brings out all the needles and IVs, but Simon Russell Beale’s character was far more than a physically sick man or an arbitrary crazy old man. He was more the king who lost his kingdom and power by his own fault, not expecting thus to become a man, but becoming one nonetheless against his will, still accustomed to having despotic power over people, and even retaining his physical power, unable to learn restraint. His madness was the psychological result. His age only reinforces his feelings of entitlement and guilt, but Simon Russell Beale played with a forceful energy, his Lear was still capable of violence, physical as well as verbal. His Lear was physically strong, as some old men are. Unlike Richard II, Lear has only his own guilt and own self to take it out on, the Fool is there, but there is nothing honestly like a usurper to blame. The Fool does cop blame, being a friend, the sole one left, and not hesitating to let Lear know it.

Adrian Scarborough sings a somg as The Fool in the National Theatre's King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

Adrian Scarborough sings a song as The Fool in the National Theatre’s King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

Sam Mendes treatment worked best for Lear’s men, still wearing black shirts and boots, but with baggy pants, modern soldier uniforms and all gone to seed, over-the-top and almost absurd. They worked especially well against Adrian Scarborough’s Fool who helps make that scene take off. Tom Brooke, too, as Edgar comes into his own, especially in the powerful Poor Tom scenes, played very seriously, the madman not so much Edgar’s “disguise” but his true state. This, and in his later recovery, serves as a foil to Lear’s madness and death and seems to show Lear’s condition not necessarily wholly blameable on the sicknesses of old age. Kate Fleetwood acted a cool, modern, trying-to-stay-business-like Goneril, and her aforementioned domestic with Lear was very disturbing. Anna Maxwell Martin was business-like but in a different way, she had more the studied flippancy of the middle daughter. The sisters’ corporate qualities were quite chilling, but they didn’t, like most of the actors in the play, seem to have much room to move on their own within their characters in this production. Literally so: there is only so much range of movement possible in those heels. Olivia Vinall as Cordelia, in either flats or army boots, had more physical range of movement, but seemed especially constricted by the production. Cordelia is given very few scenes for the actor to create her (or his as the case may be) character, but they are the most important of the tragedy, so with the final scene weighed down with the modern accoutrements of illness and death, too familiar now on stage, screen or real life to move more than cringes in the audience, and actors concentrating on operating the corresponding props convincingly like doctors and nurses, this last scene loses some of its pathos. It loses only some though against Simon Russell Beale’s perdendo “nevers.”

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.