Review: King Lear

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 3 March 2014 in Culture
Culture
Taken by storm: Anoosh Chakelian reviews King Lear, the National’s set-piece Shakespeare production of 2014

By virtue of having the established Shakespearean dream team – Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes and venerable British actor Simon Russell Beale – behind it, this play evokes a sense of hushed wonder before the lights even go down. It’s an awe that is crucial to sustain with such a play as King Lear, a frenzied festival of blood, madness and pathetic fallacy. And Mendes manages it extraordinarily.

The context works. Lear’s is a concrete court of 20th-century totalitarianism – a high-Stalinist aesthetic – with the withering old dictator losing his iron grip not only on the regime, but also his senses. Paranoia, lost loyalties and factions plague him, so often the downward spiral into the dustbin of history for many an absolute ruler.

This production pulses with hormones and blood. Snatches of horror invented by Mendes and added to the drama – for example, the harrowing scene of Lear savagely beating his Fool – may be gratuitously gory, but they do bring authenticity to the severe setting that designer Anthony Ward has so deftly articulated.

Russell Beale steadily finds pathos in the old tyrant, who appears so heartless during the fateful division of his land between his daughters in the first act. Be-cardiganed and increasingly impotent as his 100 knights, a band of testosterone-fuelled soldiers, are stripped from him, he eventually tumbles with his attentive Fool (played exuberantly by Adrian Scarborough) onto the storm-whipped heath, where his passion is matched beautifully by his vulnerability. He ends up in a hospital gown, disorientated and lost.

But it’s not just Lear’s show. The other characters are equally arresting, in particular the malevolent elder sisters. Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) is icily assured, contrasting with Regan’s (Anna Maxwell Martin) twitchy girlish sadism. Truly chilling. Edmund is played by a vigorously contained Sam Troughton as a vengeful bullied “bastard”, rather than the charismatic villain. Edgar’s noble persona, too, is twisted, with Tom Brooke giving both him and his peasant alter ego, Poor Tom, a thoughtful performance – a simple, slightly ethereal, lolloping Pete Doherty of a character.

Where the play shines brightest is in its intimate scenes: the Fool joshing with Lear in his darkest moments; Lear discovering his treasured and wronged daughter Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) is again by his side; Poor Tom leading his unknowing, unseeing father Gloucester. These, juxtaposed with the big, bombastic moments, make this a richly woven tragedy.

There is a National Theatre Live cinema broadcast to 500 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 1 May. www.ntlive.com

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