The National Theatre’s current production of King Lear gives us a public tragedy, showing what happens when a once powerful totalitarian ruler who no longer has the strength in mind and body to maintain control of what was an authoritarian state comes to grief. The resonances from recent history are considerable. There is a private family tragedy here too, when the damage which has been done to the next generation cannot be undone, but for much of the play it is the public one, beautifully designed by Anthony Ward, which takes centre stage in the vast Olivier auditorium and fills it with great style. It is a convincing, well thought through reading of the play which brings with it both great gains and some losses.
Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is already losing his grip as the play begins. His division of his kingdom and his rejection of Cordelia is not an arbitrary whim. He has clung onto power for far too long, using fear as a weapon, as his kind of ruler often does and he leaves it in a way which is ill judged and sure to cause chaos for both himself and those around him. He has been used to constant flattery and instant obedience and his years of power have effectively been over for some time, ended by his fading physical and mental strength. We are given a perfect reminder of this in the great statue of the king in his pomp which Kent is shackled to after his quarrel with Oswald. He is not the man that he once was. Simon Russell Beale’s performance grows in stature as the play progresses. He is deeply moving in the later scenes of the play and his fear of the madness which he has suspected may be coming for a long time is heartbreaking. It is a fine performance.
Olivia Vinall makes a fine Cordelia. She has the great gift of being able to speak verse truthfully- everything that she says on stage is said clearly and with conviction. There is precious little goodness and hope in King Lear so what goodness there is becomes crucial and Stanley Townsend is a tower of moral strength as the Duke of Kent. It is a wonderful performance- the best performance of the part that I have seen. If only he had been listened to! The evil in the play was convincingly played and it was very clear where this evil had been nurtured. Gloucester, in some ways Lear’s alter ego, had a moment of cruelty towards Edmund. It was only a moment but it spoke volumes and showed you why his son had ended up as he was. Goneril and Regan had been forced to rein themselves in for too long and submit to their father. They had needed to deceive and flatter and use what resources they had to survive, in particular their sexuality. These were two deeply damaged women brought to life with disturbing clarity by Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin. I was particularly struck, for the first time, by the character of Goneril’s husband Albany in Richard Clothier’s performance. A decent man who has somehow managed to end up in the middle of a nightmare.
I said that there were some losses. For me the production didn’t really manage to make sense of the relationship between Lear and his fool. This was certainly not because of any lack in the performance, Adrian Scarborough is a terrific actor, but more about decisions which had been made within the context of the production. What Shakespeare had written just didn’t quite work for me within the world of the production and one thing which he hadn’t written should, for me, simply not have happened.
With that one important caveat I loved the direction from Sam Mendes. The Olivier is a grand space which needs a director’s vision and a strong overarching design and there were some stunning visual moments. Looming clouds and empty space for the storm scene, the great statue, backlit swathes of heath grass and a large supporting cast who provided the public backdrop of the play. For once we were actually able to see what Goneril and Regan found intolerable in the behaviour of their father’s followers. I will remember this Lear for Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the later scenes but also for the picture that it painted of a dystopian world which is spiralling out of control.