There are three things you should know about Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear: it’s modern dress (more about it later), it achieves quite a few revelatory moments in the interpretation of the text (more about them later) and has a brilliant Lear in Simon Russell Beale. Maybe it’s true of King Lear what is true of Hamlet: it’s easier to have a brilliant central performance than having a brilliant production. If Sam Mendes’ King Lear falls short of true greatness, that’s more of an observation than criticism. The experience is rich and the rewards many, and any shortcomings become part of an intensely rich dialogue with the audience.
Simon Russell Beale’s Lear (short, with his head sunk in his body and quite reminiscent of Stalin in Collaborators) starts to show signs of deterioration early on. In the first scene, he has everyone under his thumb, unpleasant, mean, revengeful but his unstable mood picks through already. Did I miss the power of the king? I don’t think so. His bileful behaviour with Goneril in Act I, Scene IV is relentless and stomach-churning but underpinned with the abyss looking back. The moment he catches on – “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven. Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!” – feels like an explosion, it creates a vacuum around him. From then on, he appears increasingly like a child, trailing along or losing control (and Cordelia’s “this child-changed father!” immediately rings true). He struggles and is liberated in equal measures: he becomes playful, unhinged, wise and unselfconscious. His last scene – when there is nothing to be lost – is heartbreaking in its instinctive soulful clarity. He finds serenity when he gives up.
Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril carries a lifetime of hurt in every breath, which makes her both relatable and unpleasantly sour. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Regan, in a bold performance of hardened sexuality and unmitigated ambition, is able to suggest the damage without inviting sympathy, a true iconic villain. Olivia Vinall is purposeful and serene, although I still feel Cordelia is more of a plot device than a character.
I felt that Adrian Scarborough’s Fool was underused: he had a presence of intense detachment, and while this is an achievement in itself, he felt a step removed from the emotional fray of King Lear’s descent. Stanley Townsend’s Kent was forceful and movingly loyal, a much needed warm presence in the early parts of the play when no one is likeable (and I very much enjoyed his manhandling of Simon Manyonda’s Oswald). Tom Brooke’s Edgar makes a persuasive journey from gullible and immature to a deeply moral man and a force to be reckoned with. Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester started more rigidly corporate than I would have liked but found the strength of the character as the story progressed.
When it comes to performances, the one true disappointment was Sam Troughton as Edmund: he is saddled with overtly modern associations – suits, glasses, briefcase – which made him look like a dull civil servant rather than someone everyone falls for (and in this production, his seductive powers are more prominent than usual). As a result, he came across oddly colourless, neither powerful nor cunning.
Which brings us to the modern setting: the production opens in a corporate boardroom and closes in what looks like a World War II field medical unit. In between, we had vast dining rooms, huge statues, derelict warehouses. While the mismatch of periods is not a problem in itself, it went hand in hand with an anxiety to fill the space. Helicopter sounds and visual effects competed with the actors and some of it detracted from the intimacy of the story.
Even if it felt less than the sum of its parts, the production had immense drive and at its best it was a raw and unflinching struggle with and out of sanity.
I didn’t mention certain directorial choices so far as they contain significant spoilers. The next few paragraphs will discuss just that. Please don’t read if you want to remain unspoiled.
The most significant – and rather brilliant – departure from the text is what happens to the Fool. In the play, he disappears after Act 3, Scene VI without explanation, and Lear references him again in the final scene when he says “And my poor fool is hanged”. Given that Lear is hardly reliable by that point, the reference could mean anything. In the National theatre production, Lear – in a state of agitation and mental confusion – kills him while reenacting the trial of Goneril and Regan. It’s a shocking and visually arresting scene. More than that it makes perfect sense: the Fool’s death becomes the secret that no one can talk about and Lear – who never realises what he has done – loses his way for ever.
Other additions to the text: Cornwall flirts with and kisses Edmund, creating a love triangle with Regan. (More importantly this continues the recent trend of man-kissing in Shakespearean productions. I wholeheartedly approve).