An old man, bedraggled and pathetic, rages in a storm. He is King Lear. But is he all of King Lear? In the pantheon of Shakespearean roles, he follows on from Hamlet as the character that’s deemed to prove – often when the white hairs outweigh the rest – that you’ve made it as an actor. But if the world is a taunting echo inside Hamlet’s head, it utterly engulfs Lear. His actions may trigger events, but his voice is one of many to cry out in pain and anguish. To treat the play only as a vehicle for a star turn is to lose its tragic sweep.
This is clearly something that director Sam Mendes understands. His stunning new production of King Lear at the National, starring some of the best British actors on stage today, is epic in scope, gut-wrenchingly personal when it counts and filled with the cross-currents of a society in the throes of enormous change. Its modern-dress setting – military camps, helicopters, guns and combat fatigues – is standard Hytner-Othello fare. But this isn’t about high concept design. It’s about hurt – the sad, quiet moments that follow when the raging world has exhausted itself.
From the first scene, Lear’s fateful division of his kingdom, Mendes differentiates characters often presented as a blur of similar traits. Sat behind an endless trestle table with all the connotations of da Vinci’s Last Supper, Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril is a tense-jawed, controlling presence while Anna Maxwell Martin practically purrs as a coquettish Regan. Cruel and intelligent, she’s clearly the more dangerous sister, even before the wince-worthy eyeball gouging. But these aren’t cartoon characters – in their every flinch we see the damage caused by Lear’s insults. It’s domestic warfare on a national scale.
Mendes delves deep into the play’s focus on custom and natural order – not going against Shakespeare’s grain but finding a rich seam in each familial fault line. Here, Sam Troughton’s Edmund is a sharp-suited, self-made man, forged and curdled by Gloucester’s neglect of his illegitimate son. In contrast, Tom Brooke’s loafer-ish Edgar kicks around in a cardigan, swigging wine. The shade they cast and the darkness that follows traces the arc of parental responsibility. The chasm between young and old is the gulf into which Lear’s kingdom plunges.
Impending change is present in everything from the swirling clouds projected on to the stage to Adrian Scarborough’s nuanced performance as an older, world-weary Fool. His gently mocking relationship with Lear is the last refuge for a man no longer able to muster the same respect as the imposing Lenin-style statue that bears his name outside Gloucester’s home. In a play full of blundering blindness – through grief or anger – the Fool sees most clearly what lies ahead. His death in an unpacked bath tub is sudden and shocking, an example of the coin spin between comedy and tragedy that Mendes manages so well here.
Brooke’s wild reappearance as a naked, mud-covered Poor Tom, after being set up by Edmund, sees him assuming the Fool’s mantle, with feigned madness leading to insight. His cautious rapprochement with his father, the now-blind Gloucester (a superb Stephen Boxer), is a slender thread of kindness where all other ties have snapped. These scenes take place after a well positioned interval, which turns the production’s remaining hour into an exploration of the consequences of the play’s bloodiest events. While this makes for a lengthy first half, it’s well paced and gripping.
The second half is also where the cast’s rich character work pays off. Without this, Lear’s absence from the stage could create a vacuum. And even as Troughton’s chilling Edmund descends into full-blown villainy along with Regan and Goneril, they never entirely slip out of three dimensions. The emotional heft of the production swings through the bigger, bloodier scenes, sweeping us along with it as people are poisoned and throats are cut, until all that remains is carnage – staged in such a way as to complete the dark cycle first started by Lear.
Which brings us, finally, to Simon Russell Beale. His Lear is a raw, bristling ball of pride, fear and fragility, made tyrannical through pain. He drags himself across the stage as if each step is an effort, puffed up with a rage that catches in his throat. Cruel, petty or bewildered, it’s a brilliant, un-showy performance, free of grandstanding. Shuffling around in baggy white underwear, he makes every fleeting moment of anger or weakness resonate, and Lear’s slide into dementia heartbreakingly believable.
Beale’s Lear desperately needs people. As he loses his grip on sanity, faltering gestures and half-raised hands to those around him replace earlier demands for public declarations of love. It’s not until he’s lost everything that he’s able to understand Cordelia’s affection for what it is. As his youngest daughter, Olivia Vinall is strong-willed and sympathetic. But while their reconciliation is touching, it’s Lear’s final scene with Gloucester that really hits home. Two actors at the top of their game as just two old men, sitting in a field, reflecting on their lives. Amid the noise and the chaos, Mendes never forgets the power of the close-up.