King Lear at the National Theatre
27 June 2014
It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this one up. Firstly, because I’d booked tickets to see it when I was insanely busy. Secondly, because it all hit a little too close to home. I started this project in memory (loving memory, if that’s not too clichéd) of my grandmother, and all the things she was before dementia took her. Seeing an incredibly powerful play about growing old and losing one’s mind felt very much like pouring salt into a deep and gaping wound.
So. This was another extension of a big-name production – Simon Russell Beale as the titular king, directed by Sam Mendes, at the National Theatre. The last production I saw here was Antigone – do they ever do cheerful shows? In future I expect to see more shows, you know, when they are originally scheduled, but given how far in advance some shows sell, it wasn’t going to happen in the first year. I also do really want to try and catch some at Stratford. But this is all displacement from writing about the show…
The cast was not starry starry starry – Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin (as Regan) were the biggest names – but they were almost all exceptionally good, as you would expect. The real stand-outs for me were Adrian Scarborough’s Fool – the saddest, wisest character in the play, Sam Troughton as Edmund – evil and totally compelling – a proto-Richard III but less successful (or not – I should check which round those plays were written), and Tom Brooke with the honourable Edgar, which really is an exceptionally odd part. Strangely, Anna Maxwell Martin I thought was rather poor in some of her delivery. She had a swooping intonation, and a tendency to start slow and then get faster to the point of babbling – and following her was not made easier as she whipped her around and the sound level changed dramatically. I can only assume that this was some kind of deliberate direction (to go with her clear alcoholism) – to me it was simply off-putting.
Simon Russell Beale was brilliant – an impish, mercurial character, at times still fearsome and intelligent, the masterful king, and other times lost and lonely – and managing to switch between the two breathtakingly well. He used his physical presence extremely well – developing these tiny, nervous tics which showed his mental sense and gave the audience (well, me at least) the genuine frustration you get watching someone with a tic. In particular, the way he would run his hand down his leg was a brilliant indicator of his state of mind. Simon Russell Beale is not a tall man, and they used this well – although capable of being physically commanding, he did broken down brilliantly too. And the point of his senility was made painfully obvious when one whole scene played out in front of a statue of Lear in his prime.
There were many shocking moments – and not just when Edgar appeared naked and Lear stripped down to his pants (but thankfully no further). The death of the Fool was so brutal and so unexpected that I couldn’t bear to watch it – likewise the blinding of Gloucester. When Lear carried in Cordelia’s dead body (no small feat by Simon Russell Beale) it was utterly heart-rending. Hell, even going back to the beginning and Lear’s treatment of Cordelia was a fair indication of the way the evening would go – I remember being on the edge of my seat as Lear made her stand on hers, waiting for the King of France to save her (yes I knew it was going to happen, I don’t think googling the plot of Shakespeare counts as cheating). Yet some of the other deaths were almost snatched from us – not just Gloucester’s off-stage exit, related movingly by Edgar, but the traditional Grand Guignol, bodies-littering-the-stage final scene was almost rushed over – I don’t think, if I hadn’t known in advance I would have picked up Regan drinking the poison meant for Goneril’s husband (a fitting end for the alcoholic), for example. There may have been other examples I didn’t pick up at all!
I left at the end feeling as brutalised as one does at the end of most Shakespeare tragedies, but with one exception. In most tragedies, it is expected that some fatal flaw in the protagonist has driven them into the spiral of death – that they are to blame and that therefore their death can come as a release. Well, Lear’s death is mercy to him, but it seemed his only flaw was to have dementia. All of the actions he took – the brutal behaviour, the changes of mood – seemed to be typical of that condition, rather than innate of the man (who had, after all, inspired love in many – Cordelia, the Fool, Kent). I was in uneasy sympathy with Goneril’s suggestion that he be looked after by their servants – the only that was lacking, it seemed was the love to watch him kindly and give him what freedom might be possible.
I’m not sure how well the audience took to my flippant comments at the end and interval, but truly, they were the only way I could cope.
P.S. Wait, the fool doesn’t always die (let alone get beaten to death by Lear)? *shakes fist* *assumes Kirk-like position* MEEEEEEENDEEEEEES!!!
P.P.S. Lear was written 1603 to 1606, Richard III approximately 1592. Which makes Edmund a refinement on the magnificent bastard, rather than a forebear…