By Sarah Lambie, TD editor
I have seen four stage-Lears in my time – each excellent in some element or other – but for emotional truth this was unquestionably the most affecting. I attended with reservations: Simon Russell Beale has for many years been one of my favourite theatre actors, I returned twice to see his George in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers at the National Theatre 10 years ago – but I couldn’t picture his Lear.
Immediately my fears were allayed. I felt disappointed by the production values of the opening, kingdom-dividing scene: classic Olivier Theatre stage-filling, two long lines of stern looking supernumerary soldiers, microphones and boardroom etiquette. I found myself transported to a large number of other Olivier productions which seemed to have begun (and continued) just the same, and wondered to myself how many of them had been directed by Sam Mendes.
However, Russell Beale’s performance snapped me back into the world of the play. He charged about the stage with a small-minded meanness, a cruelty, in fact, which decision and execution was a credit to actor and director alike. This was not to be an avuncular Lear treated badly by two impossibly selfish and heartless daughters, but a quick tempered tyrant whose offspring, with the exception of Cordelia, who is an exception rather than a chip off the old block, could be seen to be products of their upbringing. The whole thing made sense more than ever before, and the unrelenting progress of the tragedy brought me to tears periodically, throughout the production.
There are several reasons to bring any drama students to see King Lear: the simple truthfulness of the performances being foremost – Russell Beale, Adrian Scarborough as the Fool and Stanley Townsend as Kent each give beautiful accounts of themselves. However, for students studying the play I would say this is an essential production. Mendes makes the strongest decision I have seen about the strange textual anomaly which is the disappearance of the Fool relatively early in the play. An audience’s perception of the stricken King is inevitably and boldly altered when we see him in the fit of his madness beat his fool’s head in with a piece of lead pipe. One thinks back to Lear’s desperate sad plea to his loyal and open-hearted fool just a few scenes before: ‘O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven … Keep me in temper, I would not be mad.’ This production is a harrowing necessity.
King Lear is playing at the National Theatre until 28 May. All performances are sold out, except for day tickets and possible returns www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/king-lear.
The production will be broadcast to cinemas by NT Live on 1 May 2014: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/44084-king-lear.