Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: William Shakespeare
Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Scarborough, Anna Maxwell Martin, Olivia Vinall, Kate Fleetwood, Sam Troughton, Tom Brooke, Stanley Townsend
King Lear (Simon Russell Beale) is growing old and maybe even feels dementia approaching, so he decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters and their husbands. But he expects a certain amount of flattery for it, which his youngest (and up to this point favorite) daughter Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) is unwilling to give him. Lear takes this as a sign that she doesn’t love him and banishes her. But a feeble king is the opportunity for all kinds of power struggles and soon there is trouble stirring all over.
This production of King Lear practically lives off the monumental performance by Simon Russell Beale. Though the rest isn’t bad either, he just takes center stage and completely dominates it. And maybe he should do that more often because the result is awesome.
Sam Mendes decided to go a rather modern way within a classic setting. He didn’t change the text (as far as I could tell) but the subtext becomes more modern. Lear is not insane, he has dementia (which also shows in physical ways which Beale does perfectly). Gloucester is not “only” blinded, he’s waterboarded beforehand. The props and the stage design were also an interesting mix of old and new. This gives the entire production a slightly timeless quality.
But that also meant that some things just felt a little more jarring. Edgar’s disappearance and apparent insanity and his treck through Europe with his father seem extremely weird in that context. Wearing a suit, Edmund’s practically a bond-villain which doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the play. It’s much easier to stomach sexism when it’s in historical costumes and Shakespeare isn’t exactly the least sexist writer in the world. The two older sisters aren’t really well-rounded characters, more screeching harpies, one frigid, one oversexed (though both after men and power) and both seem to serve mostly the purpose to make the youngest seem even more perfect, docile, humble and caring. This version of the play doesn’t really change much about this, though a reinterpretation would have been good.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the play. I thought that Mendes generally did a very good job with it. And anyway, all those things paled next to Beale’s performance. It was just tremendous. Starting with the way he moved to the way he was able to show Lear’s vulnerability below all the power-hungry assholery. I had tears in my eyes more than once and it’s mostly due to him. (Though Anna Maxwell Martin, Tom Brooke and Adrian Scarborough in particular were able to hold their own next to him.)
In the end it’s Lear who keeps you glued to your seat, despite all the bad decisions he makes.
Summarizing: very nice.