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.