“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has rolled out the big guns to start 2014 – Simon Russell Beale as King Lear directed by Sam Mendes. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, or what your budget is like, make a resolution to see this one.

It’s a grand production in many ways. Star director Mendes was widely rumored for the top job at the National Theatre (it went to Rufus Norris), and is clearly at home here. Behind Anthony Ward’s deceptively simple design, the Olivier auditorium is used for all it’s worth. The sense of space is appropriately magisterial and the endlessly revolving stage reflects the play’s conceit of a wheel of fortune. Lear’s kingdom is a noirish nightmare inhabited by gangsters, militia and Blackshirts.

It isn’t just the superb spectacle that makes this Lear memorable. Simon Russell Beale gives the first unmissable performance of the year. His physical transformation is striking – he seems to shrink into the role in a degeneration that accelerates before your eyes. Always an intelligent performer, Russell Beale’s frequent work with Mendes shows how well he interprets the director’s powerful vision. This Lear is scary, a potent psychopath and giving up his throne is acknowledged as inexplicable. It’s a strategy that makes sense of his rages and fills the stage with fear. In a bold move, Lear kills Adrian Scarborough’s thought-provoking fool (in this production he’s even occasionally funny) in an agony of anger.

Matching him in menace, Lear’s daughters are clearly from the same mould. Fantastic casting is made the most of with Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Regan stealing many of the scenes they are in. Vampish and vicious, they are full of manoeuvres. Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia is also defiantly active, donning army fatigues as she leads an invading force to rescue her father. This Lear is action packed throughout. The plot fuels the tragedy in a way that emphasises that justice isn’t abstract, or the twisted sport of a divinity, but the work of man. From this, the end is even more tragic than usual, with a near unbearably moving performance by Russell Beale.

Until 25 March 2014

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

Written 27 January 2014 for The London Magazine

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