Simon Russell Beale excels in the title role of Sam Mendes' new staging of 'King Lear' at the National Theatre, London.
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Take hugely-acclaimed theatre and film director (American Beauty, Skyfall) Sam Mendes: one of this country’s finest actors, Simon Russell Beale, and bring them together for one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, King Lear, and what’s the result? Dynamite!
Mendes responds to this epoch-making play with a production of such grandeur and cinematic sweep that it leaves you breathless. Updating the action to some imaginary present-day totalitarian state, Lear presides over the separation of his kingdom over the Tannoy, attentively received by menacingly black-clad bodyguards and his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The former two massage his ego, but when Cordelia fails to join their sycophantic praises, Lear banishes her along with his most loyal of servants, Kent.
The results of this stubborn act borne out by Lear’s pride are catastrophic for the King as his grasp on power slowly dissipates in tandem with his already fragile state of mind.
Plots to oust the King and subterfuge ensue so that by the time Goneril and Regan throw the King and his retinue out of their respective homes, Lear’s descent into madness is almost a foregone conclusion.
In creating clearly-defined characters throughout, within Anthony Ward’s imposing designs, Mendes adds great clarity to what in lesser hands can be confusing. There’s a sub-plot involving Gloucester’s ‘bastard’ son Edmund, who through deception manages to convince his father that his brother Edgar is plotting against him, yet Mendes manages to make both threads to the play work in perfect harmony together.
Nor does he shy away from the violence that is inherent in the work. Gloucester’s blinding by Goneril and Cornwall is stomach-churningly horrific as is the manner in which the Fool departs from the play half way through. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens – suffice it to say there was a collective gasp from the audience at this point.
Within this splendid staging, a uniformly superb cast shines. As Lear’s venal daughters Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan) and Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) are ice-cold super bitches, whilst at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum Olivia Vinall radiates warmth and compassion as Cordelia.
Edmund’s scheming and plotting are brilliantly etched by Sam Troughton whilst Tom Brooke’s descent into madness as Edgar is astonishing – he’s also brave enough to bare all in his scene on the heath!
Stanley Townsend is a tower of strength as Kent and as Lear himself, Simon Russell Beale delivers yet another superlative performance, at turns raging against his daughters and the elements, and then bringing a quiet, almost pathetic introspection to the role. The final scenes are quite heart-breaking.
Not surprisingly given Mendes’ and Beale’s involvement, this is one of the hottest tickets in London, but more seats will go on sale on Friday 14 February, but be quick!
GT gives this 5/5
Words: Keith McDonnell
Tickets and further information here: National Theatre
Photo: Mark Douet