Within the first ten seconds that National Theatre Live’s “King Lear” opens on the screen, minus any credit roll or “Tour London Now” commercial distraction, Simon Russell Beale storms through immense leaden upstage center doors into the austere, militaristic, shadowy set like a mad bull on a rampage and snatches the ominous, dread-filled scene by the throat. He propels it straight into unbalanced, contemporary chaos. Sporting a regal swagger and supercilious sneer that could make Dick Cheney jealous, Beale kicks off this production as King Lear with an intemperate urgency that defies the play’s historical tenor. He socks audiences back into their seats with a hostile, capricious force that makes every character on stage cringe and stare down at their hands in fear, not shifting, barely breathing. This is how a professional actor makes a truly committed entrance, how a sterling production explodes into action, guided by eminent stage and film director Sam Mendes. In this first scene, Beale’s Lear reveals why the court now fears and despises his petty, vindictive tyranny, he who once was a great warrior and leader, beloved by many. He displays the onset of irrational, dementia-driven rage in his dealings with his daughters, two of which he unwisely vests with control of the state and his affairs and the third he crudely banishes with the mature wisdom of a badly spoiled toddler. Court intrigue seems to smolder out of every glance between his retainers and family. Partly aware of and further infuriated by this intrigue, Beale’s Lear destroys the furnishings in the room, ending the scene in utter shambles, characters scrambling to escape his wrath. It’s absolutely riveting.
‘Simon Russell Beale proves once again why he is one of our great actors,’ says London’s The Times, an understatement. He is a genius at practicing the craft and art. Often King Lear gets portrayed as an annoying, petulant, braying caricature, a creepy old guy worth pitying more than fearing, almost laughable in his ramblings. The parallel between the father/son relations with the House of Gloucester gets lost (both fathers lose “sight”, one metaphorically, the other literally). William Shakespeare’s theme of love’s betrayal recedes into irrelevant, rhetorical background behind a clowning performance with a lot of incoherent dialogue. Not in the National Theatre production. Mendes’ Lear remains vital, fully human and utterly comprehensible throughout. With director Mendes’ blessing, Beale researched the type of deteriorating dementia that Lear seems to exhibit and built a natural reality for someone losing his mind, experiencing rages and visions and horribly terrified by it. When he stares out at the audience from his hospital bed near play’s end with a vacant, fearful gaze, the audience can only feel compassion for a once great man who isn’t sure if the young woman visiting his bedside is his beloved, once banished daughter Cordelia, or a trick vision. He strokes her hair, tastes her tears to confirm her reality. One could weep for his Lear, not often the response inspired by the performance witnessed.
The ensemble of players matches Beale with naturalistic characterizations and command of Shakespeare’s lofty text. Elder daughters Goneril and Regan, played by Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin, unleash a viper’s nest of intrigue without ever seeming like the evil stepsisters in Disney’s “Snow White”. They are truly their wily father’s daughters. Stephen Boxer’s Earl of Gloucester balances Lear’s excess elegantly with his refined reserve, yet ends up in not much different a place, with eyes literally gouged out. Sam Troughton makes a surly, palpable Wall Street-style villain in the comely bastard Edmund who hatches evil plots with Goneril and Regan; in real contrast the grotesquely angular Tom Brooke brings an existentialist, monk-like suffering to his ordeals. When he masquerades as ‘mad Tom’, clothed in nothing but mud and a groin-covering towel, his ramblings seem to evoke a Pilgrim’s progress or a descent through Dante’s Hellish circles. Add together the commedia-evoking Adrian Scarborough as Lear’s unctuous, riddle-weaving Fool and stalwartly realistic Stanley Townsend as the ever-loyal Lord of Kent, seat them center stage at the foot of a park statue of Lear in a nearly barren landscape — one senses a prickle of hint of Beckett’s Godot.
Scenic, sound and projection design function effectively to create an outer world of insanity reflecting inner madness with its dreamlike representations in somber grey shadows on the revolve and the massive upstage projections of dark floating clouds passing over all action, under relentless downpour and thunder. A night’s dream of horror, or a gradual descent into real madness? Classic, made modern, made natural, made fantastical and heartbreaking, made ultimately human and timeless by the superior artistry of Director Sam Mendes and his exceptional ensemble team at London’s National Theatre. More than well worth attending.
Anthony Ward, designer; Paul Pyant, lighting design; Jon Driscoll, projection design; Terry King, fight director; Paul Arditti, sound design.
NT Live’s screening of “King Lear” will show again at the Angelika Film Center and Cafe in Dallas and Plano on Saturday May 24 at 2pm.
A version of this review appears on Theater Jones.