King Lear: William Shakespeare

King Lear: Shakespeare

★★★

(National Theatre, London, until 2 July 2014)

I’ve been rather blown away by the reaction to my post on The Crucible and am only glad that so many people enjoyed it and found it useful. The secret to successful blogging, clearly, is to name-drop Richard Armitage as often as possible. However, in lieu of any other opportunities to do so, I wanted to write about another of the plays I’ve seen recently: the National’s production of King Lear (directed by Sam Mendes), which is almost at the end of its run.

You don’t go to Lear expecting an evening of light-hearted entertainment. It’s the tale of an autocratic monarch who crumbles from hubris into tragic isolation, and the play is stuffed with torture, madness and villainous intrigue. In retrospect it may not have been the ideal way to spend a night catching up with a good friend from university. He hadn’t seen it before and, as the first act closed on a blood-soaked couple of scenes, I felt the need to apologise. Maybe he’d come expecting Shakespearean sparkle, mistaken identity, love, and a bit with a dog; and I’d dragged him along to something where the characters had a shorter life expectancy than in Game of Thrones. As we nursed our interval drinks, we wondered aloud how many – if any – characters would still be standing when the curtain fell.

Our protagonist is Lear himself, an elderly patriarch with three daughters who has given the best years of his life to ruling the kingdom of Britain, and who now wants to spend his twilight years with less responsibility. Challenging his daughters to describe the magnitude of their love for him, he carves up his kingdom depending on the level of filial affection they describe. His elder daughters Goneril and Regan, who see their chances, obligingly pour out exuberant professions of love, while their foolish father basks in the false warmth of their words. But Lear’s youngest and most beloved, the as-yet-unmarried Cordelia, remains silent. While her sisters can easily trot out what their father wants to hear, Cordelia has too much genuine affection to be able to put it into trite, convenient words.

King Lear: Shakespeare

Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin)

Mistaking her modest understatement for indifference, Lear flies into a passion and condemns her to exile. The doughty and loyal Kent, who dares to speak up for her, is banished too. Rather than accept that fate, Kent disguises himself as a common soldier so that he can remain in the service of his old, misguided king. Lear prepares to enjoy a pampered old age, shuttling between the castles of his two supposedly adoring daughters, but his contentment swiftly sours. First Goneril and Regan start grumbling about the cost of keeping him and his roistering band of knights. Then they start sniping at him. And then they start trying to chip away at his freedom.

Faced with the unimaginable prospect of filial rebellion, Lear tries to assert his authority. But what authority does he have left? This arrogant and fallible man has given away his lands and his responsibilities – and with them his power. Without the kingdom under his thumb, he is at the mercy of his daughters. Too proud to admit that he was wrong in banishing Cordelia, Lear sinks into depression and madness, wandering into the moors with no one for company but his ever-faithful Fool and the doggedly loyal, incognito Kent. As the great patriarch is reduced to nothingness, the realm itself begins to crumble.

The chaos of civil war is shown most clearly in the family of the Earl of Gloucester, whose bastard son Edmund has a sharp eye for the opportunities to be found in Regan’s and Goneril’s camp. While his father tries to mediate between Lear and his daughters, Edmund quietly begins to spin a web that will do away with his legitimate brother Edgar, win him a long-coveted place as his father’s successor and, perhaps, even secure him the hand in marriage of a queen. In a world where everyone is out for their own gain, the traditional values of loyalty, faith and honour are trodden into dust. Children turn on their parents – subjects turn on their king – and Lear will discover that it’s only at the very edge of despair that we can learn who to truly trust.

King Lear: Shakespeare

Edmund (Sam Troughton) works his magic on Goneril (Kate Fleetwood)

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is a profoundly unsympathetic character. He is peevish, petulant and selfish, pushing his daughters to compete for his affection and unable to distinguish between genuine and feigned love. He is a man whose great days are behind him and who is descending into the querulous, bitter childishness of old age: a tyrant both to his family and his kingdom, and the kind of old man who saves his own pride by stabbing out at those who love him most. And yet, although this Lear has nothing warm about him, he’s also pitiable: a hunched, physically shrunken figure who tries so hard to exert authority precisely because he knows he’s slipping away from it. Russell Beale gives an incredible performance, taking Lear from the nasty, arrogant piece of work who opens the play, to the bruised and broken man who ends it. It’s a sobering picture of the superfluity of old age. (And all the more remarkable from an actor whom I last saw on stage – when I was at school – as Hamlet, a character about fifty years younger than Lear, but whom Russell Beale pulled off with equal assurance.)

 Another standout for me was Sam Troughton as Edmund, who played the part of an outright villain with great relish and developed a clever solution to the problem of performing such a two-faced character. When he was wearing his glasses, we knew that we were seeing the face Edmund presented to the world: that of a dutiful, concerned and humble son to a great father. But when the glasses came off, then all was revealed: all the ambition and scheming was laid bare. Bravo to Troughton for taking a role I’d never paid much attention to, and turning him into one of the characters I most looked forward to seeing. Of the other actors, Olivia Vinall made a moving Cordelia with a core of steel, but I felt she didn’t really have much to do; and Adrian Scarborough was memorable as a world-weary Fool whose loyalty receives the worst possible payment (that really shocked me, incidentally. Does he always end like that? I thought he was meant to be one of the few characters left at the final curtain).

I didn’t find all the roles completely successful, though. I had particular difficulty with Anna Maxwell Martin’s Regan, I’m afraid, which was a real shame because I’d been looking forward to her performance. Sitting up in the circle, I found it impossible to hear what she was saying. Her lines tumbled out so quickly and with so little articulation that I just couldn’t tune in to her voice, and besides I found her trophy-wife vapidness a rather dull counterpart to Goneril’s (Kate Fleetwood) greater poise.

All in all it was an impressive performance of the text, but the production left me a bit cold. I don’t know exactly why that should be, but I suppose part of it is probably the play itself; and part of it the way in which the steely modern setting, coupled with the largely unsympathetic characters, just left me struggling to find a way to emotionally invest in the action. Towards the end, as bodies piled up on stage, I realised that I hadn’t really grown to care about any of these characters, despite the actors’ competence. It was a frustrating feeling. I’d read many, many good reviews of the production and yet, for me, it lacked a little soul.

King Lear: Shakespeare

Cordelia (Olivia Vinall)

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