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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times