Theatre Review: King Lear



Where: National Theatre / When: 28th April

Wow. Just, wow. I had been eagerly anticipating this production of King Lear, ever since it was announced. Like the play, as it’s one I studied at A-Level, the last time I saw it performed was 10 years ago and one of my all-time, super favourite actors, Simon Russell Beale as Lear. I am delighted to be able to say that the performance far exceeded even my high expectations.

For those that are unfamiliar with the play, a quick synopsis (a more detailed one can be found here): King Lear is getting older and decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, leaving them to take care of the country and him. He asks each daughter to describe how much they love him, in order to win their portion of the kingdom. His older daughters Goneril and Regan flatter him, professing their love in grand and hyperbolic terms. However, Lear’s youngest and most beloved daughter, Cordelia tells her father that he should know her love for him, that it what it ought to be and is enduring. Lear is crushed by her answer – interpreting it as lack of filial love and duty – and casts her and those who seek to defend her out of his kingdom. Cordelia marries the Prince of France and leaves her family forever. Lear then divides the remaining portion of his country between his other daughters.

Lear then goes with his company of men and loyal Fool to live with first Goneril and then Regan. Both daughters are exasperated by him, and no longer feel the need to cow-tow to his kingly demands, treating him contemptuously and coldly. Lear begins to be driven mad by their unkindness and by the realisation that he pushed away his only loving daughter. Gradually, both Lear’s situation and his band of follows become reduced, with Lear’s madness and disordered behaviour worsening by the day. Meanwhile, his daughters’ jealousies increase and they look set to go to war with each other, trampling on anyone that would help their father or contact their sister. The country and Lear both seem set to crumble…

Note: This is a long post and there will be spoilers for the play below… you have been warned!

Simon Russell Beale was (as expected) incredible. My seat was at the very end of the front row, right next to the stage, meaning that I could observe every nuance, every tiny detail of his performance. Early scenes showed him as a military-based leader, almost tyrannical in terms of power and control. This Lear was full of vigour and physical strength, however cruelly he used it. Watching his gradual disintegration into a flinching, pathetic shell of his former self was painful to watch. While Russell Beale is clearly too young to be playing Lear (he is in his 50s, as opposed to late 60s/70s, the usual age range for the role), he made himself seem so small and frail onstage before us. He hunched, hobbled and shuffled his way round the stage; the way lost, elderly men do, shuffling up and down hospital corridors. His Lear was persistently scratching at himself, as if unsettled within his own skin. His ‘madness’ released both Lear’s most violent and repulsive underbelly and also his capacity for great kindness and tenderness, showing us why he inspired such unswerving loyalty in those that truly loved him. Russell Beale’s playing of a scene in which Lear appears in a hospital gown to Gloucester and Edgar (Act 4, Scene 5) was particularly heart-breaking, as he reveals his great fall from grace and yet comforts Gloucester like a child. His final scene with Cordelia (Act 5, Scene 3) was gut-wrenching and some of the most moving acting I’ve seen onstage. It called to mind the final scenes of Ghosts, which was similar in its parental pain and anguish. Russell Beale is an exemplary actor and this is a magnificent performance.

Stephen Boxer who played Gloucester was also very affecting. He had an elegance and kindliness to his delivery that made both his mistakes and violent punishments harder to bear. I had forgotten what a despicable weasel Edmund is and Sam Troughton brought him to life with a fantastic oily smugness. He looked like Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote; all sleeked, neat blonde hair and slightly too tight suits. He wore owlish glasses, removing them like some sort of reverse Superman whenever he revealed his true self to the audience. By the end of the play, when Edmund is revelling in power, they are gone completely.

Anna Maxwell Martin is another of my favourite actors, so to see her in the same production was an added bonus. Her Regan was a ball of barely contained sexuality and fury. She waltzed across the stage (both older sisters wore nothing but high heels and slinky clothes), full of coquettish charm, rage and pent up energy. Maxwell Martin practically spat her lines, drawing out her consonants in exaggerated sibilance like some sort of snake. She was alternately positively bored with everyone else, examining her nails distractedly, and impatiently tapping her foot, vibrating with tension, like a lioness waiting to leap at her prey. Regan’s delight in the vicious and the cruel and willingness to get her hands dirty was shocking even when expected.

Kate Fleetwood played Goneril as Regan’s opposite, giving us a tightly wound performance, full of repressed desires. She held herself close throughout, shaking with rage whilst trying to remain calm, constantly holding herself in check. Her transformation from superior held-togetherness to a wild, snapping plotter was as desperate as a father’s. Olivia Vinall was affecting as Cordelia, infusing her with a sweetness and strength befitting the character. The trouble I have with Cordelia is that like many other martyred Shakespearean women (Ophelia, Desdamona etc) is that she is inherently boring. Offstage for most of the play, Cordelia does and says very little of interest; her role is to be virtuous, kind and devoted to her father, as a contrast to her ‘wolfish’ sisters, and to be the catalyst for much of the action as well as Lear’s internal anguish.

I often get a bit confused by Edgar’s storyline (why does he believe Edmund so unquestioningly?) but there is no question that it is integral to the action. Tom Brooke played the role energetically, imbuing him with a mercurial quality. He and Lear’s Fool are both wise beyond their years, masked by madness, making astute and shrewd observations while society derides them. Adrian Scarborough’s Fool was warm, slipping in moments of strength and comfort, taking care of Lear and Cordelia as parent to child.

I liked the play’s exploration of madness as protection. Lear goes ‘mad’ and retreats from life to hide from the cruelty and disdain of his older daughters and to forget what he’s done to Cordelia. The set was stark and black, allowing storm clouds, thunderstorms and fire to be projected onto it, often reflecting Lear’s state of mind. At one point in the first half, a Churchillian style statue was brought onstage, showing a younger Lear, striding towards something. As the older Lear sat at the foot of the statue, in a reduced state, desperately trying to summon a suitable promise of revenge to hurl at Goneril and Regan, it served as a powerful visual reminder of his tragic fall from grace and a sad reflection of what he once was. In the final scenes, Edmund was dressed in an almost identical black uniform to the one Lear wears in the opening scenes. This mirroring demonstrated to me the drastic changes that had taken place across the play and the wrenching of power firmly away from Lear and his family.

Whew, this is a long review! I cannot recommend or praise this production enough, I loved every second. Tickets are still available and there will be an NT Live screening tomorrow (1st May) in cinemas across the country, as well as an NT Encore screening on Sunday (4th May) – catch it if you can!



4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: King Lear

  1. I’m going to an NT Live Screening of this in Belfast at the end of the month and I can’t wait. SRB is one of my favourite actors so this will be the next best thing to seeing him on stage. Lucky you for getting to see it and thanks for the great review.

  2. Reblogged this on Shakespeare Unlimited and commented:
    Simon Russel Beale puts on a virtuoso performance of an audio-only Hamlet published by the Arkangel Shakespeare . This guy is the real deal. This article elucidates the mastery Mr. Beale possesses, and also puts him in the ranks of the greatest actors of the 21st century.

  3. Just saw the NT Live screening yesterday and was blown away. I can’t imagine how amazing it must have been to have seen this production live. The acting, staging, set design were all stunning and Russell Beale was at top of his game.

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