Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Review: King Lear

One of the great things about London theatre is the variety of stuff you can see. Variety of medium, variety of tone, variety of theme, variety of story, the choices are endless.

Variety of quality is also sometimes there too. Case in point: having seen the execrable Stephen Ward one night, a few nights later we were off to see the fantastic King Lear.

There were no free seat upgrades this time - in fact it was literally standing room only - as the NT's production is, to use that god awful cliche, the hottest ticket in town. It doesn't take a genius to work out why that might be. Directed by Sam Mendes and starring the phenomenal Simon Russell Beale, the production has awesome written all over it. In large writing. In permanent marker.

And it really doesn't disappoint. The production is staged on a minimalist set, which makes clever use of video and projection (the storm sequence in particular is really well done), in modern dress and casts Lear as an autocratic dictator. The pacing, so often my complaint in Shakespearean productions, is swift and the action positively zips along (which is helpful as the play still comes in with a running time of three hours plus and my attention span is increasingly short these days). 

Mendes' vision of the play and its titular lead character does much to make both accessible. The idea of making Lear the dictator figure gives a modern audience who don't know the play well (eg me) a useful reference point that helps to explain his motivations. Ditto the foregrounding from Act 1 Scene 1 and throughout the play of the idea that Lear's 'madness' is actually dementia. I found the planting of these two ideas about Lear really useful in understanding his actions and the way the story unfolds. 

Of course King Lear is one of the great Shakespearean parts and Simon Russell Beale's incarnation is fantastic. Shaven headed and with an excellent beard, his Lear is a brutal, insecure but ultimately touchingly tragic figure. SRB plays the progression from one to t'other very subtly. Frighteningly angry and violent initially, for me the most effective part of this performance is watching Lear's decay. There are some beautiful moments along the way - the conversation he has with The Fool (Adrian Scarborough on excellent, mischievous form) in which he pleads 'tell me I'm not going mad' - and some incredible details - the nervous scratching that becomes more pronounced as his condition worsens. The final scenes where he is reunited with the exiled Cordelia (another excellent NT Shakespeare showing from Olivia Vinall) are heartbreaking. I think I've read it said somewhere that every generation has its Lear, and if Simon Russell Beale is mine then I'm totally cool with that. 

Elsewhere, the supporting cast is universally strong. And pretty huge - there are a lot of non-speaking soldier/knight roles in this production which really add to it's sense of grandeur and use the slightly cavernous space of the NT's Olivier stage to great effect. Worth particular mention are Stephen Boxer who is fantastic as the Earl of Gloucester, Anna Maxwell Martin on particularly venomous form as Regan, Stanley Townsend mastering various accents and a sense of quiet dignity with aplomb as Kent and Sam Troughton as malcontent Edmund, a bit of a Shakespeare-by-numbers villain but played with evil joy throughout. 

This fantastic production is on an extended - and largely sold out - run at the NT until May and you should definitely try and get one of the few remaining tickets. Even if you have to, like, sell a limb or something. It's definitely worth it.

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