King Lear, The National Theatre

The National Theatre’s new production of King Lear is without a doubt a magnificent one that has been universally praised; it is epic in scale, richly emotional and thrilling. The production reunites Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale, who have worked together many times to great effect on both Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean plays.

Sam Mendes’ direction takes us to a very modern militarised kingdom ruled by the old tyrant King Lear (Simon Russell Beale). The stage set is brilliantly manipulated to give the sense of a country under the control of a harsh regime. Military clad personal provide a sinister and threatening backdrop to the story of greed, betrayal, madness and human folly.

The opening scene quickly establishes Lear’s power and brutishness, set in what appears to be a court styled on a military tribunal; Lear announces the division of his kingdom between his three daughters, Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin), Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Cordelia (Olivia Vinall), based on their ability to praise and flatter him. His favourite Cordelia, say’s nothing and is disinherited, saved only by the kindness of the King of France who is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway. As time passes the two sisters grow power hungry and tire of their father presence, and as they try to distance themselves from the old man he becomes more demanding. Lear’s impatience and frustration grows at his loss of power and authority, gradually his fury and disbelief give way to madness as he realises what he has done. Beale’s descent into madness is masterful, taking the audience on an intimate journey towards the final tragedy.

Simon Russell-Beale is one of the best British actors of our time and makes a fine Lear. The support cast are excellent too, Kate Fleetwood’s interpretation of Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughter, is icily cold and selfish; Anna Maxwell Martin plays a manipulative and increasingly power thirsty Regan; and Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia injects the warmth of human kindness and forgiveness into the play. Stanley Townsend’s Kent is excellent and provides strength to the play in his gruff resilience and loyalty – the post-hunting scene in Goneril’s house is brilliant, threatening, funny and menacing.

Yet the play is dividing critics’ opinion and it is easy to see why; Mendes has meddled with the play and in an attempt to modernise it he has brought with him an element of grindhouse gore and violence usually associated with cinema. However, this is a first class production with a wonderful cast who deliver a passionate performance throughout the play. Undoubtedly tickets will be hard to come by at this stage but it is well worth the effort to try to get to see it.

The play is on at the Olivier in the National Theatre and runs until the 28th May (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk). It will also be broadcast to cinemas around the world on 1st May 2014, details for participating cinemas can be found at: ntlive.com

Image credits: Imagery is from the National Theatre.

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