King Lear, review: 'Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale's production is worth the wait'


Olivier, National Theatre, London

Simon Russell Beale was not gushing when he described Sam Mendes as his “professional soulmate”. For close to a quarter of a century, the pair have brought out the best in one another. Their collaboration on King Lear has long been in the pipeline and I am delighted to report that this production was well worth the wait. 

Staged in the vast Olivier, it's a powerfully searching account of the tragedy that fuses the familial and the cosmic, the epic and the intimate, and ponders every detail of the play with a fresh, imaginative rigour.  

Mendes has set the piece in a present day totalitarian state. Russell Beale's Lear is an old Stalinesque despot, surrounded by a huge armed guard, and the love-test of his daughters is a chilling public ceremony, with microphones, designed to prop up his ego before he delegates power.

As vehemently performed by the excellent Olivia Vinall, Cordelia's refusal to play the game sounds like a principled protest against a regime based on conformism and flattery. 

Russell Beale brilliantly shows you that the King's paroxysms of furniture-overturning fury are an index not just of Lear's deteriorating mental state but of his frightened awareness that his brain is failing and desperate need for reassurance. Hence his psychological dependence on keeping his train of knights – a huge group of rowdy soldiery here whom the daughters see as a potential political threat and are reluctant to entertain, understandably given that their behaviour includes dumping a whole dead stag on Goneril's dining table.  Russell Beale as King Lear with daughter Cordelia, played by Olivia Vinall Russell Beale as Lear with daughter Cordelia, played by Olivia Vinall

It's a mark of how closely the production follows the implications of becoming powerless that even a group of the knights who have not been axed are seen deserting the ex-king and sneaking off up the central aisle.  

Adrian Scarborough's excellent Fool is a melancholy music hall comic in a check suit and feathered trilby, full of oblique, subtly anguished concern for his master.  Why he disappears from the play is explained by a shocking twist that I won't disclose but which is horribly plausible in a production that refuses to sentimentalise the hero.

Russell Beale can break your heart with the mad Lear's sudden moments of piercing clarity but his superb portrayal of man who discovers the folly of a life predicated on power rather than love remains turbulent with complexities and contradictions.  Padding agitatedly around in a hospital gown in the reunion with Cordelia, he has to fight with his scalding sense of shame for what he did to her before he dips confirming fingers into her tears and tastes them.  And in the last scene, he delivers the line “Look on her, look, her lips” not in a dying delusion that she lives but in an angry, almost dogmatic final outburst against the meaninglessness of the universe.    

There are one or two misjudgements – not least the hydraulic ramp that hoists Lear and the Fool into air for the storm sequence and looks like a special effect in a West End musical. But the production is, for the most part, thrillingly well-played – especially by Anna Maxwell Martin whose Regan is a posh nymphomaniac turned on by torture and by the luminous Tom Brooke who brings out the naïve, improvisatory nature of the way Edgar plays Providence in his father's life. Strongly recommended.

To May 28 – NT Live broadcast in cinemas May 1; 020 7452 3000

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'