This much-anticipated production by Sam Mendes of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic play stars the actor Simon Russell Beale, who at fifty-three may be on the younger side of Lears, but who is undoubtedly one of our most gifted classical actors.
Mendes and Russell Beale have worked together on numerous occasions before (notably in ‘Othello’ (SRB as Iago) and The Tempest (a startling Ariel opposite an imposing Alec McCowan’s Prospero) so there must almost be a shorthand of technique between them as they created this excellent version of what becomes in their hands the story of a military dictator who is pitched into dementia by the harsh treatment of his two eldest daughters (Goneril, played here by Kate Fleetwood; Regan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and the slow burn of guilt following the banishment of his youngest ‘jewel’ Cordelia (Olivia Vinall).
Now and again the production may stray into a flashy cinematic flourish (the rising ramp Lear and his Fool walk on, the out of character rage from Lear leading directly to the demise of the gentle Fool (Adrian Scarborough, very good indeed)) but its strength is in the performances, notably that of Russell Beale, from his strutting yet tiring despot of Act One through to his hopeless flower carrying fractured spirit of the scenes immediately following the interval.
As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer is very touching in the scenes where he is reconciled with his wronged son Edgar (Tom Brooke), albeit without knowing it. Brooke himself makes an excellent Edgar, taking the references to the ‘naked fellow’ literally in his first appearance as ‘Poor Mad Tom’, but keeping the dignity of the exiled gentleman. Rounding out the cast of principals is Sam Troughton as an Edmund who has expressive eyes and a knowing smirk, especially once he has the attention of both the wicked sisters.
This is not a perfect Lear, nor the best I have seen, although Russell Beale does not disappoint (unlike some reviewers I do not see his small stature as a problem, and his interchange with Cordelia when they are reconciled is deeply moving, as it should be, but often is not) and the modern setting makes us think of overthrown dictators and aged rulers. Unlike the Almeida production of two years ago this production does not imply incest between Lear and his children, although the sisters remain highly sexed and this remains their eventual undoing, two harpies destroyed by jealousy.
All in all, a triumph, with Stanley Townsend’s bruiser of a Kent also worth a mention. This is a Lear which does not pull its punches, and sometimes it veers into violence which seems to jar with everything that has gone before – but yet, a despot who has towering statues of himself across the city may, if his eyes are pecked at long enough, might simply cease being able to see clearly and take responsibility for his own actions? Only the return of his beloved youngest child can bring Lear back to a semblance of sanity, but too late.