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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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