This superb production of Shakespeare’s King Lear will resonate with you well after the cinema screen fades to black. NT Live again proves itself to be a fabulous idea, beaming the delights of the London stage to the global community of theatregoers. This production has been described as epic ever since it opened in January this year on the Olivier stage at National Theatre, Southbank. It does not disappoint on any level and it is so fortunate that we can watch this from the comfort of our local cinema on the other side of the world. The camera work is well executed and serves the design and stage direction (Sam Mendes) excellently.
The monochromatic lighting leads the audience to really focus on what matters the most with a Shakespeare production – the text. The excellent diction and obedience to the rhythm of Shakespeare’s lines is on display for us to marvel at. The lighting designer, Paul Pyant, produces wonderful simplicity by conveying a mostly dark stage interrupted by blazing shafts of bright light to focus on small sections of the stage during dialogue. This often employed chiaroscuro elevates the play into a sort of dreamlike infinity, and along with the beautiful delivery of the lines, almost mythologizes the action on stage which makes this rendition of the story of Lear superlative.
With its themes of ageing, dementia, power, family loyalty, madness and the bonds that tie us to our parents, this three hour play is complex but never loses its driving force. After his rash actions at the beginning of play, Lear descends into a reality divorced from those around him only to come out the other end with a perspective even he himself could not expect possible.
Simon Russell Beale, described as Britain’s best living actor of our day, plays Lear with incredible concentration and wonderful stagecraft, the only minor reservation would be that his angry outbursts earlier on became a little too overbearing. He manages to effortlessly create Lear’s desperate world that ensues from Lear’s slip from reality. He perfectly conveys Shakespeare’s exploration of the dire world that is created, where rationality is folly, disguise is true nature and insanity is sane. For instance, the only way for Edgar (Tom Brooke) to maintain his true nature is to feign madness and Brooke’s Poor Tom scenes are desperately sad and eerie but telling. Brooke’s portrayal of madness is enthralling and disturbing. You get a real sense, for once, of what this character really represents being one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic. With his lithe body exposed, the frailty of human existence brought to bear by Brooke. Brooke’s scenes with Russell Beale were spellbinding and really did justice to these two extraordinarily difficult parts to play.
Even though so many of Shakespeare’s characters fall to great depths of pain and suffering, the actors are so skillful that they manage to also bring forth Shakespeare’s optimistic vision-out of the depths of despair there can be hope. Gloucester (Stephen Boxer), Kent (Stanley Townsend), even the small role of the Doctor (Hannah Stokely) all contribute in conveying this optimism.
This is the ninth time Mendes has directed Beale on stage. Beale is captivating. He has said that the number one thing in the forefront of his mind is what it would be like to suffer from the onset of dementia. Throughout the play he attempts to imagine what it is like to know you are losing your mind. He portrays Lear as a man who is irrational and frustrated, knowing that his mind is playing tricks on him, the grip of dementia always there to frighten him and trip him up. His shaven head and bushy white beard gives him a rough, hard-nosed looked which belies the man Lear truly becomes. The trappings of title, power and responsibility are cleverly shown by Beale to be empty and he in the end conveys a sense of what is important – finding the true essence of man. Beale displays his acting prowess in conveying Lear’s fermenting repressed feelings, his madness which brings these feeling to the surface, the bursts of uncontrolled emotion, the erratic movements and the delirium.
A devastatingly cruel moment of the play, which is a brave directorial decision of Mendes, is what happens to the Fool. Mendes’ decision to do what he does fits perfectly well with the idea that the Fool is Lear’s conscience, a figment of his imagination or his little voice that comforts or disturbs. Adrian Scarborough’s Fool is not floppy, childlike or clown-like, which is usually the way it’s played, but this Fool is precise, unyielding and very serious. It is these small decisions which Mendes makes that really does serve this epic play so well and actually communicates so much to the contemporary audience.
With characters that are exceptionally delineated and with simplicity of set and lighting design, this broadcast is definitely worth it for those who love Lear or those who are knew to him. Enter his kingdom of folly and madness!
King Lear screens nationally from 21 June 2014. Click HERE for more information, including a list of participating cinemas.
King Lear By William Shakespeare
Photos: Mark Douet