Size matters in theatre. No, I’m not referring to Simon Russell Beale’s comfortable girth, but to the size of the Olivier theatre’s vast stage, which adds something unique to this scintillating production of King Lear by Sam Mendes. The last time the National Theatre tackled this play, to my recollection, was in the 1990s, when Ian Holm played the crumbling monarch in a chamber production in the Cottesloe theatre. It was outstanding in its way, but Lear’s fall requires a bigger arena to capture its political dimensions, if it is not to be just a family drama.
The last time I saw the play was at the Almeida with Jonathan Pryce, but that too lacked the space to show the full dimensions of the play. Now Mendes has successfully projected Lear’s downfall on to a broad canvas. Lear’s hundred knights are all there on stage – at least most of them are – causing exactly the kind of mayhem that his daughters find so unpleasant. These black-uniformed thugs give the flavour of the Lear regime, a personal dictatorship resting on violence. Before the play opens, a ball of fire is projected over the stage. Gradually it is covered up in an eclipse which prefigures Lear’s own collapse into darkness. The opening scene in which the king announces his decision to divide his kingdom starts with Lear, a pot-bellied toad-like creature dressed in black, barking his commands into a microphone. Seated with his back to the audience, he confronts his plainly terrified family, who are lined up at a table facing him. Lear’s Britain is a conformist place, where dissent is not tolerated, as his faithful courtier Kent discovers to his cost. Lear’s mental fragility is apparent from the start as he flies into a rage at Cordelia’s failure to declare her love in the way he expects. Dictators want to be feared, but wanting to be loved is a weakness. Lear begins to turn over the furniture in his uncontrolled rage, and it’s clear the violence of his regime comes all from him.
Russell Beale’s performance is breathtaking. There really is no other word. Like Gielgud, he’s an actor who is always entirely himself – physically unmistakable and shaped like a teddy bear, but able to inhabit completely the part he is playing. I’ve seen him playing a wide variety of Shakespearean roles – Iago, Malvolio, Leontes, Hamlet, Benedick, Macbeth, Falstaff (on television) and most recently Timon of Athens. He’s been superb in all of them, but I think his Lear surpasses anything he has done before.
He’s backed by an extraordinary cast – perhaps a testament to the pulling power of Mendes as a director that actors compete to work with. Adrian Scarborough as the Fool and Stanley Townsend as Kent stand out, but there’s also a compelling Edmund/Edgar duo in Sam Troughton and Tom Brooke. As the ugly sisters Anna Maxwell Martin and Kate Fleetwood are compelling, with the former channelling the sexiness of Kate Moss and the latter a steely kind of political ambition. Fleetwood has the edge when it comes to audibility while Maxwell Martin is the more watchable. This modern dress production really is a modern dress production, not the kind of over-designed ahistorical mixture of centuries which to me often suggests that the director can’t quite get focused on what he wants to convey. Mendes stages the play as a parable of modern dictatorship. Think of Assad, Mubarak, Tito, Ceausescu (the last two of whom I remember reporting on at close quarters in the 1970s). Lear’s story is a sickening one with few redeeming features.
I saw what was only the second preview, so I shall break with my usual habit and refrain from plot spoiling. There’s a wonderful piece of theatrical invention which explains to the audience why the Fool plays no part in the final scenes of the play. I will say no more, except to point out that the entire run of this triumphant production is already sold out. No doubt there will be a long queue for returns.