King Lear, review: 'Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale's production is worth the wait'
Olivier, National Theatre, London
Friday 24 January 2014
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 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
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre