King Lear at the National Theatre
I used to live no more than 10 minutes’ walk from the National Theatre, but these days a trip up to London to the theatre is a rare treat. And all the more so when it’s to see Simon Russell Beale playing King Lear at the National in a production by Sam Mendes. The last time I saw Lear was at Stratford in 2007 when Ian McKellen played the lead (possibly more at the right age), so it’s a tough comparison for Russell Beale, but he delivers a storming performance, with a lot of subtlety and even tenderness mixed in with the rage.
It’s a production that seems to me to emphasise the drama and the emotion over the speeches and the words. When Lear rages, his delivery is too fast and loud to follow the detail of the words (and he’s not the only one), but the emotion and the general meaning is never in doubt. It’s a large scale dramatic production in several respects, from the sheer size of the supporting cast of soldiers, to a raised cliff in the storm scene that is more reminiscent of Les Miz than Shakespeare. There’s plenty of gore too with the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes added to by Lear bludgeoning the Fool to death in a bath, in what seems like a surprisingly casual episode of violence that provokes little reaction from the other characters. Much the same is true when Edgar kills his brother Edmund. Understandable as the killing may be, it seems to come out of nowhere and to provoke little reaction from a large crowd on stage. By then there’s quite a collection of dead bodies littering the stage, and it seems to be just another one to add to them.
The whole cast is strong and there are other memorable performances. I enjoyed Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stanley Townsend as Kent in roles that both seem to me quite difficult to get right. Funnily enough the last memorable Edgar I saw was Simon Russell Beale himself, many years ago at Stratford. Kate Fleetwood played Goneril entirely plausibly as a chilling but regal Wallis Simpson figure, but for me Anna Maxwell Martin was far less plausible as Regan and hit several jarring false notes. Overall though, a great day out, a production that will live long in the memory, and all rounded off by a ride up to the top of the Shard (totally over-priced, but an amazing view) and dinner at Jamie’s Italian (an unalloyed pleasure).