Monday, 17 February 2014

'King Lear' at The National Theatre

This afternoon we were treated to a performance of 'King Lear' at the National Theatre with Simon Russell Beale in the title role, a production I've been looking forward to. Simon is one of the big stars of the National Theatre and I've seen him there lots of times but I thought he might be a bit young to play Lear. Not at all. He became the right age in front of my eyes as he moves from a vigorous and dynamic king to a physical and mental wreck who sees his family die around him. It's a painful play that, in the right hands, can elevate the spirit. It's a long play and you need stamina to get through it.

I was very admirationous of the set that used every trick and treat afforded by the Olivier stage, with it moving round and up and down, different screens coming down to create different atmosphere's and a surprising lack of obvious props. It was a very busy stage fit for an army (which appeared at a couple of points) with all sorts going on, including a dead stag on a white tablecloth at one point (although I'm not sure why). The lighting was excellent and the sound was haunting, with storms in the background and birdsong.

Simon Russell Beale was, of course, excellent, a cold and distant king forcing his daughters to explain their love of him before he descends into madness and horror only to realise his error as his life leaves him. It's an exhausting performance as he goes through the massive range of emotions on his road to madness and back. He gives himself over to the performance, an unlikeable man eventually stripping down to his underwear and later a hospital gown before finding himself again along with some sympathy as he realises what he's done. It's a brave performance.

Other performances of note were Stanley Townsend as Kent and Stephen Boxer as Gloucester along with Tom Brooke as Gloucester's wronged son and Sam Troughton as Gloucester's bastard son who wreaks havoc in the kingdom through lies and deceit. It's Kent's last lines that get to me, spoken over the dead body of his king, "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no". Loyal to the end, my lord Kent. This speaks of a Lear we don't see, a Lear before the events of the play in which he's a good friend and king, before we see his descent. It's one of the puzzles of the play - before it starts he's obviously a loving father, doting on his daughters and they love him but then it all goes wrong and we're left to puzzle about it.

I wasn't terribly impressed with the women in the play but that might be comparing them to the production I saw at the Donmar Warehouse a few years ago that had the strength and calm of Gina McKee as Goneril. Kate Fleetwood just seemed to shout a lot. I quite liked Olivia Vinall as Cordelia, the wronged daughter who eventually rescues her father and returns from France at the head of an army. She fails, sadly and is killed, carried onto stage by a distraught Lear.

The military motif in plays in the last few years is starting to wear a bit thin and this production has 20-odd soldiers in it, no real lines, just uniforms and guns and lots of stomping round the stage. The black uniforms were, at least, a relief from khaki but, along with the long, swirling black leather coats was a little bit camp (and a bit third reich). And I didn't approve of the dead stag at all.Putting aside these minor foibles I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to see a play of power and substance, well produced and well delivered.

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