Yesterday Andrea and I had a hot date in London at our favourite haunt, the National Theatre on the South Bank. We were going to see our beloved Simon Russell Beale in King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes.
We love SRB, and have been to see him on numerous occasions. He never disappoints.
His Lear was certainly brilliant, and very strong. Not my favourite however. I preferred Ian McKellen in the role. That’s not to say SRB wasn’t great, but I wasn’t entirely keen on his interpretation of Lear. Physically and costume wise he relied very heavily on his portrayal of Stalin in the excellent Collaborators which we saw him in a few months back. In fact I think they probably just dyed the costume in the washing machine and made do.
He was a very angry, recalcitrant Lear, very unpleasant for the most part, except in the very extremes of his madness where he had been stripped of all dignity and could not hide behind bluster or anything else.
It was great in that his playing of Lear gave you good reason as to why he would do such a bonkers thing as to split his kingdom in three in the first place, and explained his exceedingly odd relationship with his daughters. It was not great in that it did rob you of any sympathy you might feel for him until he was so tortured, so mad and so other than you couldn’t help yourself.
The cast, for the main part, was really strong. Adrian Scarborough was a fantastic fool, a hundred times better than Sylvester McCoy who played against McKellen. I loved the way they explained the Fool’s disappearance half way through the play. It was clever and considered and showed that they had really thought things through in terms of the emotional narrative of the play. Cordelia, played by Olivia Vinall was quite self controlled and quiet and had a dignity that I have seen others fail to give her, particularly Romola Garai, who I loathed as Cordelia and who squeaked and squealed and screamed her way through the part until you wanted to murder her yourself. Anna Maxwell Martin who I rate highly as an actress disappointed a little as Regan. Her physical acting was superb, she portrayed nervy high strung and damaged in every twitch and frantic movement, but her diction left a lot to be desired, and the hasty, screamed way in which she delivered some of her lines meant they were totally lost to me, and I was only in the second row of the stalls. Kate Fleetwood played an excellent, bitter and disappointed Goneril whose wish to please her father and the knowledge she would always play second or even third fiddle to him gave a lot of power and depth to her performance. Edmund the bastard was played with vicious enjoyment by Sam Troughton, and Edgar, who I usually find unbearably priggish took on a whole new life played by the excellent Tom Brooke.
The staging was fantastic, totally cinematic and epic in the best sense. I am always intrigued by directors who work a lot in film, and how they bring that filmic quality to their plays. Danny Boyle did amazing things with Frankenstein, and Mendes did not disappoint here. I loved the use of back projection in the storm scene and the deep, throbbing roll of thunder that made the stage almost vibrate. I loved the spareness of the stage dressing, and yet you never felt cheated as there were so many wonderful little details that brought every scene to life.
I wanted to love the play. There was a lot to love, but not being able to pity Lear as I wanted to made me a little disappointed in it at times. It was a fascinating take on the play, and I am really glad I got the chance to see it, but I cannot say it is my favourite Lear, and yet I keep thinking about it. It was certainly worth the effort to get there, and as I was driving there and back yesterday, it was an effort in every sense of the word.
I believe tickets for the live performances are only available in the form of returns now, but there may be seats for the NT Live performance at cinemas at the beginning of May and it’s well worth seeing if you can get a ticket.