The current production of King Lear at the National Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale, has been the subject of a certain amount of hype. We went up to London on Monday to see it, staying overnight so that we could decompress at leisure, and also so that my partner, for once, could have an easy commute to work, and I could spend a leisurely day hunting photographs along the South Bank of the Thames. Mission accomplished! We enjoyed our theatrical evening, our hotel was fine, and I returned home yesterday with a nice haul of images.
King Lear is a notoriously tricky play to get right on the stage, and the National have not, in my humble opinion, got it right. In fact, I think they've got it a bit wrong, and yet not many people seem to have noticed, or dared to say so. Setting it in a vaguely fascist dictatorship, adrift somewhere between the 1930s and today was lazy, and a bit of a cliché. It made more problems than it solved: modern dictators do not have court fools, and any business requiring swords becomes absurd when everyone is standing around armed with AK-47s and automatic pistols. If I wanted to be harsh, I'd say I'd seen an exceptionally good amateur production, with a massive budget, a superb stage set, and one actor of genius, but with no real sense of ensemble acting, and a rather uncertain take on the mammoth issues explored by the play, emotional, artistic, theatrical, and interpretive. I say this feelingly, as I once carried a spear in a school production of Lear, watching a star actor receive intensive coaching, while the rest of us stood aimlessly by.
Rather than write an essay, here are some key points:
- In this production, Lear gradually turns into Mr. Natural (a Robert Crumb cartoon figure), especially once reduced to wearing a hospital gown, an effect exacerbated by foreshortening if you're sitting upstairs in the circle. This is more comic than tragic.
- Beale rattles through the bulk of his lines at a hectic pace, blurring them into an all-purpose Shakespearian white noise, then puts on the brakes, emphasising single lines, especially if those lines can be given a contemporary, colloquial intonation (I suspect the text has undergone more than a little bending here and there). It's a good trick, but he uses it too often.
- Far, far too many lines in important scenes are played for laughs. Several people die on stage like Monty Python spoofs. Gloucester having his eyes gouged is not a piece of camp. In other productions, audience members have fainted; here, they giggled.
- Playing the key scene on the blasted heath ("Blow winds, and crack your cheeks") with Lear and his fool on an elevated riser could have worked but, wot, no water? No wind machine? Recorded thunder cracks over the PA and some arm-waving don't cut it. This is a theatrical "pull out all the stops" moment, and one the theatre techs must live for. They deserve their moment.
- Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) is very poor. I'm sorry, but screaming, growling and barking random words and giggling in between each line as you sip a cocktail is not a trick you can pull in every scene. I was reminded of Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth I in Blackadder. It's also nice to be able to hear what an actor is saying.
- Edgar (Tom Brooke) is also very poor. What is a stoner in a hoodie with an estuary accent doing in King Lear? Remarkably, the length of his penis when naked as Mad Tom sent a perceptible frisson through the theatre. He had a lot of fun covering and uncovering himself with a blanket ("Poor Tom's a-cold! Oops!"). But, again, you can't play this scene for laughs, as if it were an episode of a laddish sitcom.
- Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) is the absence around which the play must turn. As her character and relationship with Lear can only be portrayed in Act 1 Scene 1, due weight must be given to that scene. There was some clever business with a microphone and giant folders of deeds slapped onto a table, but Cordelia's unexpected "nothing" is played, oddly, as defiance, rather than a tragic misfire, which undermines the rest of the play. Her eventual return as a diminutive AK-47-toting rebel leader is, again, mildly humorous. And having her troops land in a sun-blasted savannah, whilst the defending Britons are living in a land of perpetual gloom, is bizarre. "You make your own weather" is hardly one of the key themes of the play.
One tip, however: avoid evenings when the National runs the text electronically on either side of the stage as an "audio-described performance". It is very distracting, like a TV in a pub, and once you start reading you won't be able to stop. And you will giggle when the scrolling text says things like "SAD VIOLINS" or "LOW RUMBLE".