24 Jun 2014

The Arts: King Lear at the National Theatre

"O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
I would not be mad.
Keep me in temper. I would not be mad."
... So speaks King Lear, who ends up dressed only in a hospital gown and a flowery hat feeding 'smoked cheese' (a banana) to an invisible mouse. I think it's safe to say, he's mad! But, this being Shakespeare, he's not mad without good reason. Having divided his kingdom between the two most sycophantic of his three daughters and banished the third who refused to follow her sisters' bad example, he's since been mistreated, stripped of his army, home and clothes and found himself wandering the moors rambling about where it all went wrong . . .
Directed by Sam Mendes, this production of King Lear is set in a modern, totalitarian state where the Lear we meet is a dictator-like figure - complete with armed guard and his own Stalin-esque statue. His daughters - the tightly wound Goneril, Regan the sex kitten who seems to get off on punishing others, and the pure of heart young Cordelia - are played with great skill by Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin and Olivia Vinall respectively, whilst Adrian Scarborough's understated fool is a joy to watch. Praise also goes to Tom Brooke's endearing Edgar who disguises himself as a naked mad man to avoid his evil brother Edmund Blackadder - here portrayed as brilliantly slimy by Sam Troughton. Stephen Boxer is particularly affecting as the Earl of Gloucester and the scene where he meets the hospital gown-clad Lear on the cliffs of Dover was a touching highlight of the show. But without doubt the star here is Simon Russell-Beale as King Lear. The slight afflictions he adopts  - the stoop, the rolling hand, the wringing fingers - make his Lear's descent in to madness all the more believeable and though he is physically shorter than most other cast members, when he flies into a rage he commands the vast stage of the Oliver Theatre with ease.
Personally, having not seen a professional production of one of Shakespeare's plays before, I was nervous that the flowery language and three and a half hour length of the production might alienate me. But Shakespeare's plays are so much easier to understand when you actually see them being acted out, as apposed to reading the texts as I had done as part of my studies over the years. So if you are a theatre fan who is nervous of Shakespeare, don't be. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the director, this particular production was very filmic, with projected backdrops and roaming sound effects on top of a cast of TV and film familiars. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone wanting to see an outstanding piece of serious theatre. I was also happy to finally see a production at the National Theatre - a venue I read and write about so much for work but had never actually seen a show at! I'm glad to have at last put right that wrong! 
Production photos: The National Theatre website.  

King Lear plays at the National Theatre until 2nd July.

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