No laughing matter: King Lear at the National Theatre

A big production for a big theatre.

King Lear
National Theatre, London SE1

The Olivier stage at the National Theatre is a vast, hulking thing. There’s none of your poky, filigreed, rococo West End nonsense here: this space has drama all of its own. It presents a particular challenge to a director and, for his new King Lear, Sam Mendes has decided that a big theatre demands a big production: we might not get the “hundred knights” specified in the text but Simon Russell Beale’s entourage numbers in the dozens, all decked out in black commando gear like aggressive shadows.

Throughout the play, there is the sense that we are not Lear’s only audience. We start with the king – with a snowy beard and bullet-headed – sitting with his back to us, using a PA system to call his daughters and his court to order. Later, at Goneril’s court, the knights show up with a dead stag and Shakespeare’s stage direction of “horns within” is replaced with a lusty rendition of “Oggy, oggy, oggy … Oi! Oi! Oi!” The theatrical excesses of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are deliberately echoed.

Mendes and Russell Beale have worked together many times before, tackling half a dozen Shakespeare plays and a brace of Chekhovs. The production diaries reveal how closely they interrogated the text and discussed its omissions – do all of Lear’s daughters share the same mother? Were Goneril’s and Regan’s marriages arranged? – and that has given them confidence to monkey around with it. Their changes are not always entirely successful. For example, the heartbreak of the final scene, in which Lear emerges bearing the corpse of his favourite daughter, is undermined by having Goneril’s and Regan’s deaths onstage, too, making Cordelia’s body just one of several that litter the stage.

The Tarantino-esque collection of stiffs is just one example of where the production might have been better dialling it back a bit. The blinding of Gloucester is hard to watch, with Anna Maxwell Martin’s Regan almost vibrating with arousal as her husband gouges out his eyes. But did we need him to be waterboarded first? Earlier, Oswald’s hammy outburst – “O, untimely death!” – before conking out, limbs splayed and jerking, was greeted by titters in the stalls. (“It’s not a comedy,” tutted the woman next to me, aghast.) The zenith of this overblown approach was the storm scene, in which Lear and the Fool struggled uphill into a headwind, as part of the stage turned into a ramp. It had the air of a West End musical gearing up for the show-stopper; I nearly risked the wrath of Tutting Woman by imagining Simon Russell Beale belting out “Memory” – “Not a sound from the paaavement ...” – when he reached the top.

None of which is to say that this is a bad production: I’d give it four stars if that wouldn’t prompt Ryan Gilbey to come round to my house with a flaming torch and a pitchfork. It’s just that its successes are quieter than its clangers. Edgar, as played by Tom Brooke (also the lead vagrant in the BBC’s Sherlock) is pitch perfect, switching between naive aristocrat and chirpy Essex-inflected madman with ease. He also manages to act naked without his nakedness becoming distracting, which is an increasingly important skill in the wang-addicted world of modern theatre.

Adrian Scarborough’s Fool achieves the rare feat of playing the ukelele and saying “nuncle” without me wanting to beat him to death (sadly, in this production, Lear has no such qualms and sets about him with a wrench). Of the women, Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia exudes a toughness that makes her attempt to reclaim the kingdom by force seem plausible and Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril is an L K Bennett-clad bitch. Oddly, Maxwell Martin – whose superb Sally Bowles in Cabaret I remember vividly, eight years later – is the least impressive, doing a standard-issue vamp in a chilly nightie.

But it all comes back to Lear: Simon Russell Beale has chosen not to make the king seem “a very foolish fond old man” until late in the play, as he wanders round the cliffs in a straw hat, clutching a bag of flowers. Does that reduce our sympathy with his fall? Perhaps. Yet it’s also a reminder that old age is a great leveller; it withers everyone just the same.
 

Dark skies: Anna Maxwell Martin and Russell Beale. Photo: Mark Douet.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Intelligent life on earth: why we need Radio 4's Book of the Week

When a book on quantum gravity came on air, it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It sounded like the densest of abridgements: five days of excerpts from Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (week beginning 28 November, 9.45am). Swarms of quantum events where time does not exist. Cosmology, meteorology and cathedrals of atomism. Leucippus of Miletus and lines of force filling space. Very few of us listening could have understood what was being said. Instead, we just allowed it to wash over, reminding us that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

Perhaps once or twice, as the week progressed, token attempts were made to check that everybody was keeping up (“So, the number of nanoseconds in a second is the same as the number of seconds in 30 years”) – or to encourage listeners to picture themselves as part of an experiment (“Imagine I’m on Mars, and you were here . . .”). But generally it was utterly airtight, the reader, Mark Meadows, doing a good job of keeping his voice at a pace and tone uncondescendingly brisk, flattering us that nobody was scratching their head (“The speed of light determined by Maxwell’s equations is velocity with respect to what?”).

It was my favourite radio book reading of 2016. Not because I learned a single thing I could repeat, or might realistically mull over, but because it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It’s that old idea that something might be there for your betterment. When we were exposed to just four channels on television especially, and forced to stay on them, we got into astronomy and opera and all sorts of stuff, almost against our will. (Rigoletto? Jesus. Well, there’s nothing else on . . .) The programme was marvellously and unapologetically impenetrable, as the days and chapters piled up relentlessly (“We are immersed in a gigantic flexible snail shell”). What this adaptation comprehended was that we don’t actually want someone explaining Einstein to us. What is much more compelling – more accurate and clever – is simply to show what it’s like in other people’s brains. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump