by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes
National Theatre, London
Friday 28th February 2014 19.00
Simon Russell-Beale as King Lear
Kate Fleetwood as Goneril
Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan
Olivia Vinall as Cordelia
Stephen Boxter as The Earl of Gloucester
Sam Troughton as Edmund
Tom Brooke as Edgar
Richard Clothier as The Duke of Albany
Michael Nardone as The Duke of Cornwall
Stanley Townsend as the Earl of Kent
Adrian Scarborough as The Fool
Three Lears in nine months. David Haig in a 1950s Soho gangster one at at Bath, Frank Langella in a classic old-style “Actor-Manager” production at Chichester and now Simon Russell-Beale at the National Theatre. That’s four Simon Russell-Beale in 14 months too, and it was the Lear we were most looking forward to. It has a principal cast of around 22, plus no less than 26 extras as soldiers standing in the background. That’s opera level overkill. It may look epic in scale, especially in the second part when they’re standing in a hay field surrounding the stage, but a cast of this size is monumental production arrogance.
We were not totally convinced by the Bath production at the time, but having seen Frank Langella’s classic “actor manager” version at Chichester, then this one, we both agreed that Bath was the best of the three, and David Haig’s subtle, slightly underplayed Lear was the most interesting too. This production was modern dress, and the costumes were extremely dull. Reagan and Goneril had nice frocks, and the zip up / unzip skirt worked brilliantly in the quick snog scene with Edmund, which Albany interrupts. Otherwise, having a few fascist uniforms, then everyone else in suits was boring, and also confusing. Lots of men in suits are hard to distinguish. Lear’s initial semi-military costume was good, as was Edmund’s right at the end. Otherwise, poor.
Lear can be confusing. This started well, with the division of the kingdom scene, Lear seated, back to the centre of the audience, with Lear and daughters using mics. He raged with gusto, overturning chairs, as often, but really large tables too. Then the scene where he annoys his daughter because he has too many hangers on / kights was magnificent, where they returned from the hunt with a full-size fresh-killed stag to throw on the table. After that there were a whole series of flat spots where we felt it meandered and pace and flow, and also clarity of plot, were lost. It didn’t help playing down Edmund’s role until later. It was a weak Edmund in the balance of the play … that’s production, not acting. It was a politician interpretation, and while Edmund reminded us both independently of Ed Balls, the full duplicity was played down in part one. Bath, with Edmund as the most memorable character of all, was unusual, but it also makes subsequent Edmunds fade into insignificance. I haven’t experienced boredom in Lear before, but there was half an hour that both of us felt dived in appeal. We thought they cut Edgar’s transformation into Tom, or lost an Edgar scene, which muddled it too (though maybe we both dozed off for a few seconds, quite likely). Goneril and Regan were both strong, well that’s in the script, but both did the sexy bits well, and maybe frocks stand out among all those grey suits. Though we thought the direction just focused on “be sexy.” I don’t have the play engraved on my memory, but the Duke of Burgundy / King of France scene seemed over in seconds here.
Regan & Lear
Once Lear was on the blasted heath, the revolving stage kept circling. And circling. And circling. Mad Tom was totally naked on first appearance, and there was a strong and innovative bit where they retreated to a rubbish strewn basement with a toilet pan, and a tea urn and a bath. The innovation was having Lear beat the Fool bloodily to death with a lead pipe in the bath.
The Gloucester eyes putting out scene was done in his wine cellar with a corkscrew and was suitably horrific, so by then, the flat spot had definitely passed. We had a slightly unconvincing water torture bit first (with a cloth and a single bottle). They did it a lot better with a hose in The Railway Man (seen last week), but I suppose that is film and the actor victim could have a couple of days off afterwards to recover. The water torture scene is getting fashionable but having quarter of a pint of water poured on a cloth over your head isn’t that terrifying. The first part was two hours long. And felt it.
Goneril & Regan
Russell-Beale is a great actor, of course, and in part two he appears in a backless hospital gown, and the Cordelia scene was done starting with him in bed with curtains round, which nurses pull back. He did the classic hernia inducing bit carrying Cordelia’s body in. They all have to do that which is why they cast light Cordelia’s – you don’t get to play Lear at your height of physical strength.
The more buxom pre-Raphaelite Cordelia (as here) is avoided in the theatre.
Russell-Beale had studied the minor symptoms of dementia for the role and had hand movements, constant itching and so on off pat. The Telegraph review (see link to my comment, The Long & The Short of It) went on about his height in the role … I didn’t find that an issue whatsoever, but it’s not the best we’ve seen him either. Maybe it wasn’t his height,but the size of the stage and the huge cast that appeared to dwarf him to the Telegraph reviewer.
But the end also lost clarity and the multiple deaths were unconvincing. I wish they’d stop stabbing people to death using tiny paring knives. That was right the way through, and applies to the Gloucester / Cornwall scene where Cornwall kills and is killed. A one inch or two inch blade does not look right, and in reality you’d either have to wait for them to bleed too death or wait several days for gangrene to set in.
This is the third time in months where tragic deaths in serious productions have got big laughs. I would simply replace lines like “I am slain” with “Argh.” It screws up the major dramatic bits when so many people laugh. I can’t think why judicious cutting is not applied. Most Jacobean tragedies have protracted deaths with too many declarations that you’re on the way out. They didn’t use to cause hilarity, but a decade of Morecambe and Wise and other piss-takes, though already years ago, makes’ ‘I am slain’ terribly hard to carry off.
Lear and Cordelia
There are some good details. Lear uses the topless page 3 of a tabloid as a prop in his late speech. At the start, the three mics on the table are placed in front of the husbands (and in front of a significantly empty chair for Cordelia), and each daughter in turn has to slide the mic in front of her. Lear’s old slippers being picked up are good. The Fool using the full-sized stag as a prop ventriloquist dummy was good.
Lear is long. It shouldn’t feel long, and it shouldn’t appear muddled and unclear (though I think that happened in the Pete Postlethwaite version too around the same place). I’d say three stars is about right for this one, and I just feel that 26 non-speaking actors however that was financed, is costing enough money to finance another theatrical production somewhere else. It screams to me to rein in the budgets and open a second NT out in the provinces, or more practically spread a bit more cash around existing regional theatre companies. They made a lot in the programme about the 50 million displaced people in Europe in 1945, and I suppose the 8 or 10 people walking across with suitcases at one point had to represent that. Then they had 12 or 14 people dressed all in black stand with their backs to us holding black umbrellas. That was Cornwall’s funeral I presume. At least the 26 soldiers didn’t do a battle … even with 26 that looks lame. They marched about, then we had screaming aircraft noise. In fact, the use of the extras looked very good indeed … but it really wasn’t necessary. When you buy tickets they ask for an extra donation to the National Theatre, next time I’ll feel reluctant to tick the box if they’re tossing money around in such a profligate way. I’m converting to Grotowski (Towards A Poor Theatre) in my old age!. Plus point … Lear didn’t get rained on. We made do with loud surround sound thunder. Excellent for the actors.
The Fool & The Earl of Kent
You can see perfectly from every one of the comfortable and well-raked seats at the National, but we were right at one side and high in Level 3 (having booked in the first minute of the first day of public booking that was the best we could get). We could hear fine, but it certainly was far from an intimate theatrical experience at that distance and height. We were much closer in Chichester, Bath, and in the Postlethwaite one so close that we thought we were going to get splashed with blood. Maybe we lost subtlety of faces, and maybe the men in suits wouldn’t have blurred together so much closer in and lower down, but reviews have mentioned the lack of intimacy in the epic interpretation, so it must look like that from the good seats too. I thought there were several points where faces were poorly lit too, and I don’t think it was just our angle.