Sam Mendes has created a cold and bleak world in which Lear publicly divides his Kingdom amongst his three daughters. Here is a version of a totalitarian state; an absolute monarchy in which the army shore up the whims and fancies of their King. It is an overwhelmingly masculine domain in which familial relationships are brutally sacrificed for political gain. At more than three hours, this is not an easy production to watch; it is violent and unremitting, but staged with a film-like breadth and intensity that will feel like you’ve been through an emotional mangle by the end.
Two families are presented, first Lear and his ungrateful daughter, with whom you initially sympathise, exasperated by a father who continues to demand a share in the power he, by choice, relinquished. Lear imposes himself on Goneril’s palace with 100 knights who contemptuously wolf-whistling as she enters a room – hardly appropriate behaviour to a Royal princess. This is not a world where women can prosper and it’s hard to believe the daughter’s rule would ever be accepted. Anna Maxwell Martin plays effectively against type as a vampy Regan, a fur-coated gangster’s moll goading her bullish husband to hideous acts of torture. Soon the grasping political nature of the sisters is revealed as they plot and scheme to permanently remove their father, and eventually each other, from office.
Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is very competent, although quite shouty and inaudible at times. He’s a despotic ruler, short-tempered and easily riled – especially when his vanity is wounded by Cordelia’s refusal. Like a school bully, his power is drawn from the mob around him and as they desert him he is unable to retain his sanity. But Lear is a mass of contradictions; he is simultaneously an enraged tyrant and loving father, whilst at the height of his madness, he lucidly recalls the cause of his troubles. Russell Beale’s complex and watchable performance captures all of this, but he’s initially so alienating that he couldn’t engage my sympathy until the final scene. Overall he’s less compelling than the other big performances this winter, Tennant’s monumental Richard II and Hiddleston’s frighteningly powerful Coriolanus.
However, the other family examined here, Gloucester and his sons – Edgar legitimate and Edmund not – was genuinely touching. Sam Troughton’s Edmund was a brilliant study of cruel ambition, destroying all around him; he could almost have been the natural heir to the despotic early Lear. But, in a very good cast, it was Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stephen Boxer (a potentially great Lear) as Gloucester who stood out, and haven’t received nearly enough attention in the critical reviews. A fabulous performance from both, gripping from the moment they walked on stage and genuinely heart-rending during some horribly dark consequences for Gloucester, brutally played out before us. Like Polonius’s family in Hamlet, also fodder to royal intrigues, Gloucester and Edgar are fundamentally good people, almost innocently caught-up in the wider dramas, making their story all the more tragic and affecting.
Finally to the staging. Sam Mendes brings an impressive filmic quality to this production with sets signifying both the grand application of the plot’s national wars, and the frailness of the individual against the political and elemental backdrop. There are video projections of rolling black clouds, loud claps of thunder as the storm takes hold, fire and smoke as war breaks out, creating an impressive sense of epic drama. It’s certainly ambitious direction and design, and although some have been critical, I found it refreshing. Often Shakespeare is minimal these days so it’s quite fun to see a version that has chucked everything in to remarkable effect.
The major downside is there are no tickets. The second release has also sold out (the NT has an annoying habit of allowing members to buy them all so there’s nothing for public release), but check the website regularly, tickets are being returned every day and you’ll hopefully see one of those dates go orange – but be quick! Overall, the National Theatre has another winner on its hands here and you’ll certainly leave impressed by the power of this production. It’s a fine cast, well directed, and although the central performance didn’t quite grip me as other recent productions have done, this is still an exciting and fascinating interpretation.