In Sam Mendes’ almost flawless production of King Lear at the National Theatre, broadcasted live to cinemas worldwide through NTLive, Lear (the phenomenal Simon Russell Beale) is a megalomaniac slowly losing his mind. He suffers from dementia and is prone to violent, childlike outbursts of anger. He moves jerkily, shuffling from one side of the stage to the other.
Even before he divides his kingdom, and before he mistakes a banana for toasted cheese, he’s a man in decline, desperately trying to keep it together. His daughters’ betrayal only catalyzes his downfall. The tragedy is heightened because he’s both a prisoner of his own decaying mind and the agent of his own destruction: by spurning and banishing his one loving daughter while bestowing lands on his conniving ones, it’s only a matter of time before they discard him. You almost root for his comeuppance – he created the monsters that spurn him, after all – until it all becomes too heartbreaking, too real.
When we first meet Lear, he’s an emotionally stunted menace dressed in military garb. His daughters are seated next to their husbands in a line at a long table while his knights line the periphery of the room. Speaking into a microphone from his desk facing his daughters, Lear demands that they publicly proclaim their love and affection for him. Could he have chosen a less personal method to ask for their love? Can anything they might say be sincere and not mere flattery when a performance is required?
This is a brilliantly economic piece of staging, a microcosm of Mendes’s general approach to staging his production: at once, we see both how detached Lear is, and how all the characters are related to one another. The camera pulls back to give us a sense of the space, but gets close enough to see the actors’ faces without making the performances feel too big.
The conspicuous empty seat next to Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) is a clear reminder that she has no other man in her life: she may refuse to flatter her father obsequiously like her sisters, but there’s sincerity in her actions. It’s telling, too, that before the King’s loyal servant Kent departs in banishment, and before the fool follows his master, they both take the time to embrace only Cordelia with deep affection.
The two unfaithful sisters, Goneril and Regan, are never interchangeable. Kate Fleetwood plays Goneril as buttoned-up and prim, dressed in fine clothing and a confining choker of pearls. She plays her father’s game, flattering him disingenuously, yet she’s not all bad, having previously chosen a virtuous husband. When she turns her father out of her home, it’s not merely an act of cruelty: she’s justifiably fed up that he’s brought his rowdy party of 100 knights to wreak havoc in her home.
Goneril is also easily swayed by her sister, Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin), who is already lost to depravity when the play begins. Martin’s Regan is a sexual tease, all hips, cleavage, and elongated words, yet a coldness lurks beneath: she knows how to use seduction to manipulate but she doesn’t get lost in it. She flirts openly and girlishly with her father, who marks his approval for her false words of praise with a slap on the tuchus.
Meanwhile, the Gloucester clan are amidst their own family squabble, soon to be intertwined with Lear’s. The Earl of Gloucester opens the play by saying rather horrible and bitchy things, unapologetically, about his bastard son of a whore, Edmund (a fine, funny, and deliciously evil Sam Troughton). Gloucester’s heartlessness makes it easy to get behind Edmund’s plot, which Mendes milks for all its comedic potential.
When Edmund persuades his father that his virtuous brother Edgar (Tom Brooke, Corporal Nym in “Henry V”) is after his head, he hilariously fakes a wound that he claims was his brother’s doing. As he melodramatically and pathetically cries “Look, sir, I bleed!” the entire cinema audience burst out in laughter. By the time he has the choice between the wicked and widowed Regan and the falling Goneril, his predicament still lightens the mood, effectively. It’s much needed comic relief in this otherwise very dark play, and Edmund’s mischief nicely parallels Goneril and Regan’s plot: their fathers have both incited their own downfall through bad parenting.
But what happens to both patriarchs proves no laughing matter: Gloucester’s end is gory and Lear’s is devastating. When Regan’s husband tortures Gloucester as a prelude to gouging out his eyes, Regan watches with glee. When she turns out her aging father into a stormy night with nowhere to go, it’s just as chilling. The storm is vividly realised, between the darkened lights and the sound of downpour and thunder. And it’s Regan’s rejection that sends Lear speedily into madness.
In a fit of confusion that night, he undresses inappropriately before brutally killing his beloved fool. The next time we see him, he’s in the fool’s feathered hat, a hospital gown, and has a detached IV line in his hand: he’s escaped a hospital and he’s muttering nonsense. And yet, even as he sees things that aren’t there, he’s also at his most affable, his most vulnerable, and his most clever: he’s picked up some of the fool’s wit and wisdom from his cap.
It’s in the last act that the production really packs its punch. Beale has transformed from a shuffling man of power to a cowering man with none, lacking control over his fate and his body. When he reunites with a loving Cordelia, he’s already been brutally institutionalized. Before long, they become captives of his corrupted daughters, resigned to death or worse. Bound and seated, they embrace cheek-to-cheek in tears, and it’s devastating.
As the death count increases, the bodies pile up on stage: something is rotting in the state of England. Stripped of his power, his home, his daughters’ love, and his sanity, Lear is a sorry sight to behold: a frail man who’s lost everything, who craves nothing but his daughters’ affection. Lear’s head fills the cinema screen as he, stunned and broken, mutters “Never, Never, Never, Never, Never,” unaware he’s been repeating himself: the close-up adds intensity and keeps us in the moment.
This is an impressively lucid production, not just because all the characters are distinguishable, and all the subplots clear, already a rare feat, but because it’s chillingly emotionally resonant throughout. It helps that it stars one of the greatest working Shakespearean actors, Simon Russell Beale, who brought a similar complex and intelligent vulnerability to Falstaff in the “Henry IV” films for The Hollow Crown. It’s also thoughtfully adapted to a modern setting with a fairly simple, stark set: it’s not the elaborate modern re-imagining of a Nicholas Hytner Shakespeare revival, but the visceral emotions are really the focus of Mendes’s production.
A couple of things don’t quite work: it’s never really clear why Kent is so loyal to Lear throughout despite how he’s been hurt, and Edgar slips in and out of madness at the snap of a finger. But the production succeeds in making even the cruel, like Lear, and evil, like Edmund, sympathetic: they’re hurting and that feeds their bad behaviour. Thank goodness those of us not in London had a chance to see it from the best seats in the house without ever having to leave the continent.