King Lear

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1/9
© Mark Douet

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Simon Russell Beale (King Lear)

2/9
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Kate Fleetwood (Goneril), Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Simon Russell Beale (King Lear)

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Kate Fleetwood (Goneril), Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan)

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Simon Russell Beale (King Lear), Olivia Vinall (Cordelia)

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Simon Russell Beale (King Lear)

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Adrian Scarborough (The Fool)

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Adrian Scarborough (The Fool)

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Stephen Boxer (The Earl of Gloucester), Colin Haigh (Old Man)

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(centre) Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan)

Once upon a time, Sam Mendes did small: he made his name in theatre as the boss of the bijou Donmar Warehouse, then broke into Hollywood with provocative indie flick ‘American Beauty’.

These days Sam Mendes does MASSIVE: the last theatre show he directed was the West End’s gargantuan ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, the last film he helmed was the billion dollar-grossing ‘Skyfall’.

It is fair to say that his ‘King Lear’ is not small. In fact, conceivably it is the biggest ‘Lear’ the NT has ever seen: a huge operatic beast that roars darkly for a walloping three-and-a-half-hours. The great Simon Russell Beale is typically magnetic at the centre of the austere production, portraying Shakespeare’s king as an unemotional despot whose mental decline is ushered in by the corrosive flood of unaccustomed emotions that he allows to rip through his mind upon abdication.

But on this vast canvas, Lear is one player amongst many. The cast is beyond superlative: Anna Maxwell-Martin is magnificently sexy and malevolent as a kinky, glamourpuss Regan; as her sisters, Kate Fleetwood is fantastically compelling, especially in the first half, as a troubled, borderline-decent Goneril, while Olivia Vinall is a splendid Cordelia, blending a sort of wounded, virginal innocence with a disarmingly authoritative roar of a voice. I’m just going to keep going: Adrian Scarborough is a powerfully righteous Fool; Tom Brooke is compellingly weird as a slackery Edgar; Sam Troughton is skin-crawlingly unpleasant as his traitor brother Edmund.

This is a literally awe-inspiring production, dominated by Anthony Ward’s Soviet-style designs and a huge ensemble of black-clad soldiers whose presence permeates every scene with masculine menace. But its scale also allows all the play’s numerous relationships room to breathe; it is gloomy, but it is very human.

So what’s missing? A couple of things. One is Nicholas Hytner. The NT’s outgoing boss is the master of modern-dress Shakespeare, and this ‘Lear’ lacks the intellectual rigour of his Olivier productions, with the contemporary setting never quite justified. The other is intimacy: Beale is thrilling as he shrieks The Bard’s ornate verse in peals of confused anger, but he’s even more compelling as he brings Lear’s angry life to an understated conclusion, and there are scenes – notably the storm – when it feel like Mendes has requested bombast for bombast’s sake. But Beale is only 53, and if he wants to do a subtler version, he has time. This is maximum ‘Lear’, and if it’s not faultless, it is awesome.

By Andrzej Lukowski

Average User Rating

3.7 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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  • 3 star:1
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LiveReviews|11
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Katarina J

I saw the cinema NT Live version. Does that still count? Also, I haven't seen the play nor read it before so it was all new to me. I went to see it simply because I think and know Simon Russell Beale to be an amazing actor and I don't know if I can make it to NT. Now I have seen though, I'm very happy I did not miss out. I for one loved the costumes and the implication that this is some alternative universe where Shakespeare's words marry with an odd, oppressive and scary regime where King Lear reigns supreme until he decides to ask his daughters how much they love him to divide his land to them. Everything falls to pieces from that point on and does not go on to have that Hollywood happy ending you come to expect watching too many films. Perhaps it is too bleak and truly, the stage does look a little too superfluous strewn with so many bodies at the end but it is an end that is quite believable when in the news we see similar scenes everyday. You don't have to be accustomed to absolute power to crumble down, quite literally, upon losing it. Losing an ordinary sense of security can be devastating as well. And if you put your faith into the wrong people, especially if they are your family, what have you still got to hold on to?

This loneliness and the ultimate fear of growing old and knowing that everything might not be quite right in your own mind...what could be more terrifying. 

Phil D

Oh dear!


Had it not been for Simon Russell Beale rescuing the play after the interval I would not have endured this lack-lustre, perfunctory, am-dram rendition of Shakespeare's masterpiece. By the way, could somebody please tell Russell Beale that the black cycle shorts under the hospital robe really blew the effect!

Style over substance sprung to mind as I was checking my watch in the first two acts.

I agree with a fellow audience member who angrily stated Anna Maxwell-Martin should not be allowed near the stage. Her lines were invariably shouted, frequently rushed and often garbled as she strutted, screeched and screamed her way through the piece. I've seen A-Level classes produce better. Kate Fleetwood was marginally better as I was, at least, able to hear her. As for Olivia Vinall's Cordelia. I'm sorry I cringed at times but I will elevate her performance to "meh!"

Laugh out loud moments? Most of the deaths (regrettably). Were they killing each other with Swiss Army knives? Whatever it was the actors were holding, we couldn't tell.


Turning to the rest of the piece, I'm sure Mendes could have found a better way to portray a totalitarian regime than all the black shirts, jackboots, awkwardly-held weapons and pantomime

marching and saluting! At times I was waiting for them to break into "Springtime for Hitler" (yes, it really WAS THAT BAD!). And waterboarding with a small bottle of mineral water....... really???? 

Theatre needs that suspension of disbelief. A good production will carry the audience along on a journey. My problem in the National was I simply didn't BELIEVE.


WOODEN (in many cases)

HAMMED (in others)

SHOUTED (in most)

RUSHED (in ALL the female leads)

PERFUNCTORY (in all but Kent and Lear)

MELODRAMATIC to comic proportions far too frequently.


With regard to the staging I found it unoriginal and distracting. The revolving stage was done to much greater effect in Salisbury Playhouse's production of Much Ado About Nothing (and with many fewer props). Salisbury's was plain white. In the National's case, the stained glass window-like effect only served only to draw my attention the times the pattern on the stage didn't match at the edges of the turntable! The storm scene was ok but was lifted directly from the RSC's production at Stratford in the early 1980s(Michael Gambon, Jenny Agutter, Pete Postlethwaite, Anthony Sher et al)

So.... what DID I like?

I liked the slightly different take on the play. Russell Beale's Lear starts as a much darker and more manipulative character than many I have seen.

And then there's the play's saving grace. Simon Russell Beale's performance of the demented Lear after the interval was masterful. The beach scene with Gloucester and Edgar was truly touching, matching that of Gambon and rivaling Michael Hordern's performance way back when (possibly even bettering it!). Later, in his hospital bed, Russell Beale delivers one line in such a way that it really cut to the essence of dementia. So powerful was this line that I shed a tear for the first time in over thirty years of watching Lear! I won't say which line it was, but it's almost a throw-away comment. I also loved the way Mendes dealt with the disappearance of the Fool from the play. Shocking and brilliantly done!

In summary. If you're visiting London on holiday and want to take in a bit of culture this production will probably do. If you know and love the play, prepare to be underwhelmed and annoyed.


John-Paul Conway

The ladies ruled the roost for three and half hours here as a squat, ignorant Lear and his troupe lost control and let go of the reins of his kingdom, his family, his life. Anna Maxwell-Martin and Kate Fleetwood command the stage; sexy, scheming, lascivious, the boys jump to their beat and slick style. It is a nice portrayal of women getting what they want, and of the self-destructive feeding of power and control. Sam Troughton's Edmund doesn't draw us in as the girls do, perhaps more the boy in the background, and his brother Edgar, the man who has lost everything and is reduced to roaming the land as a beggar doesn't yank at our heartstrings as much as he might. Their father Gloucester however, played by Stephen Boxer, does a good job of whipping up sympathy for a man who has made mistakes and is more than harshly punished for them. Stanley Townsend is wonderful as Kent and Caius, and Simon Russell Beale, the convincing Godfather of all, shows well a man all too used to getting his own way, and confused when this begins to be crudely denied him. The production is epic, with the court scene that opens the play presenting a whole world of characters crescent-shaped in Lear's eyeline. We share this view and see as he does - scores of subjects baying at his every command; we taste his power, we feel its subsequent loss. There are a whole host of star-studded quality productions of Shakespeare playing in London right now. Sam Mendes at the National gives you a fresh view of arguably one of Shakespeare's best pieces in one of the finest spaces in the city. You won't go wrong.

Stephen M Hornby

There was something very wrong with this production. I saw the final preview and the audience laughed at the death's of Oswald and Goneril. The tone and execution of the scenes was quite wrong and produced a bizzare comic effect. Beale never really found his stride and the costumes were like a dreadful A level theatre design project., even dressing Edmund almost as a SS Stormtrooper, just to let us know he's a villain. Tom Brooke shone as Edgar and the revolving set created beautiful stage pictures, but overall a big disappointment.

Stephen M Hornby

There was something very wrong with this production. I saw the final preview and the audience laughed at the death's of Oswald and Goneril. The tone and execution of the scenes was quite wrong and produced a bizzare comic effect. Beale never really found his stride and the costumes were like a dreadful A level theatre design project., even dressing Edmund almost as a SS Stormtrooper, just to let us know he's a villain. Tom Brooke shone was Edgar and the revolving set created beautiful stage pictures, but overall a big disappointment.

maureen colledge

We saw not one but two dramas at Tuesday's preview as Director, Sam Mendes, came on stage half-way to announce "not one but two of actors' worst nightmares" - Sam Troughton as Edmund had lost his voice and newcomer Paapa Essiedu as understudy would take over. Such was the excitement in the audience that none of us minded and Paapa rose wonderfully to the occasion. We were enjoying a gripping production. Magnificent performances from the cast, especially Simon Russell Beale as Lear and Adrian Scarborough as the Fool and, in this modern dress production, very topical themes - mental illness, vainglorious dictators, sibling rivalries. Think Sadam, Gadafi and the Murdochs. It's a complicated plot and sub plot - read a synopsis first if you are not familiar with it - but this is an extremely rewarding evening of theatre.

Louise Dodds-Ely

has there ever been a better actor than Simon Russell Beale? Just stunning. Supporting cast superb too. Fantastic. There aren't enough superlatives -- and we saw it on the third preview. Go -- you won't regret it.

sofia

the prospective of the director was unique...the performance was really catchy...keep on the good work!!! :-)

Chris

We've waited two years for Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale to work on Lear - but this production disappoints. The huge Olivier stage is largely barren, apart from an ugly set of stained shutters. Projecting the storm scene looks cheap and hampers the theatricality. Adria Scarborough is a brilliant actor, but he's wasted playing the fool. But the show is worth catching for Simon Russel Beale: a dazzling portrait of power spiralling into madness.

james

The National Theatre once again shows off its prowess in a slick modern dress production. The essence of the play is well captured in this Sam Mendes version where Lear kills his fool and embraces madness with equanimity; almost relief. Simon Russell Beale ages before our very eyes and is reborn a better man. Stephen Boxer's sight is restored as a blinded Gloucester. Goneril and Regan as played by Maxwell Martin and Kate Fleetwood exude evil machinations from the start. The journeys taken by Edgar and Kent over the course of the three hours traffic are beautifully portrayed. I wonder at the cluttering of the stage with machinery as there is enough happening internally for this production not to need these accoutrements

michael

Oddly conceived production with brilliant performances. Tom Brooke is outstanding as are the ugly sisters. Simon Russel Beale gives a brilliant perormance, above all in his descent into madness. I do not think modern dress suits this reading entirely and Adrian Scarborough as the fool is not used to full effect. Does Lear kill the fool? I never saw that in the text before.