King Lear, National Theatre – What happens when a dictator looses everything?


Before I even begin my review of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy, I must disclose to being an absolute groupie of Sam Mendes.  I have followed his career from his beginning at the RSC, his work as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, on to his successful film-directing career and seen every production of his bridge project.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts.

This version of King Lear now in preview at the National is still the story of an old king who disinherits his youngest daughter and hands his kingdom to the other two but finds that their love is rather thin on the ground.  But it is much more as well.

King Lear with Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin, Simon Russell Beale (Mark Douet)

King Lear with Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin, Simon Russell Beale (Mark Douet)

Mendes brings us a Lear that is fully fleshed by what happened before the play starts.  This Lear is not a silly old man.  On the contrary, he was a powerful man who ruled ruthlessly and now finds himself thrown to the elements and unloved by his daughters.  The focus on power and the illusions that leaders create around them while in power are central to this production.  What happens to a man used to deference and obedience when he has handed his power to a younger generation.  This Lear is pared back to the basics and his dialogue with the blind Gloucester is his sanest realisation but, unfortunately, there is no way to go back.

The play is set somewhere mid-20th century and the impact of one man’s decision on his kingdom, family, associates and populace is shown in all its devastation.  The play is long, at 3 hours and 20 minutes (note the earlier starts of 7pm), but moves swiftly as the incredibly large cast embark on their respective journeys (much helped by the use of the drum revolve and Jon Driscoll’s projections).  This is not a sentimental Lear though the tragic death of Cordelia and Lear’s anguished lament will remain etched in my memory.

I don’t know if Mendes has been corrupted by Hollywood but I could have done with a little less gore.   The blood does run freely and I will readily admit to being audibly disgusted with the incredibly realistic eye-gouging scene.  And, for the record, I’m also quite done with water-boarding torture scenes.  The casts are excellent though the large Olivier stage means that there is the inevitable loss of intimacy and that some of the dialogue is shouted rather than spoken.

I saw Derek Jacobi’s performance at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010 and it was overwhelmingly moving and intimate.  Mendes’ Lear is less moving and more centred on the loss of power, the disintegration of the kingdom and the effects of succession on a country formerly ruled by a dictator.  It is nevertheless very much worth a detour.

The excellent Simon Russel Beale gives a nuanced performance as the old king who descends into dementia.   Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester is pitiful as the man who chose the wrong son.  Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) is all hatred as the daughter now turned leader who won’t shed a tear for a father she loads and who never loved her.  Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan) is equally good as the duplicitous ambitious daughter.  They are joined by an incredibly large cast including fantastic Tom Brooke (Edgar), Sam Troughton (Edmund), Stanley Townsend (Kent), Adrian Scarborough (Fool), Olivia Vinall (Cordelia), Richard Clothier (Albany), Michael Nardone (Cornwall).  The large and ever changing set is designed by Anthony Ward.

One thought on “King Lear, National Theatre – What happens when a dictator looses everything?

  1. I saw the first performance. They stress it in the program that they wanted to bring out the sadistic, tyrannic side of Lear. I do not find so many direct clues to that in the text. Rather is he a firm-handed ruler who knows how to handle state matters. 100 knights, finest in their choosing, attest to his cleverness. And he LOVES Cordelia as a daughter, so why this gestapo-like first scene? And later… not to fall into sentiment? But it is human error, momentˇs decision which later destroys Lear. The whole thing is about finding truth. And having to lose everything for that. It is human, not sentimental. Even on such a huge stage there could have been some softer, more intimate moments. Even if it is a sacrilege, some cuts would have allowed more time for crucial, turning-point moments. Now it is all galloping. It is all very bright. All kinds of “stuff” happen on the stage, input from the director. Is it all needed? The overall impression is of a distracted, well-played but somewhat unfocused production. I hoped for more. A deeper insight into human condition with the means of drama

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