King Lear

May 2, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

King Lear (National Theatre/NT Live) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

This is the second time NT Live has broadcast a version of King Lear. The first, back in 2011, was the Donmar’s extraordinary pared-down version starring Derek Jacobi, drawing its power from the intimate, bare set and performances that utilised whispers to wonderful effect. By contrast, Sam Mendes’ new production for the Olivier was an enormous, spectacular reading, with a cast of more than fifty actors and a flair for the gory, melodramatic and noisy. It was, I’m disappointed to say, one of the crassest productions of the play I’ve seen, showcasing some tremendous performances (particularly Simon Russell Beale as a wonderful Lear) but with a confused and often dramatically inert overall vision.

Beale’s Lear was an autocrat, a small man surrounded by an enormous army of black-shirted thugs and heavy furniture. Establishing a loose twentieth-century setting (ranging from WW2 battlefields to hoodied beggars), Mendes imagined a nation run closely by a phlegmatic, easily enraged tyrant, whose statue dominated Gloucester’s house and whose public image depended on shows of loyalty, meaning that Cordelia’s resistance was met by Lear overturning the conference tables and microphones at which the daughters were sat. Taking up Lear’s aggression a notch from mere iracsibility. Beale imagined a Lear whose power hinged on uncompromising loyalty and an unwavering performance of power. Yet (and as Beale himself noted in a wonderful interval feature that shed useful insight on his process) Lear was already aware of his oncoming decline, and his relatively dimunitive stature and shaking frailty became increasingly apparent. At Goneril’s castle he wore a cardigan and was caught out by Adrian Scarborough’s Fool as the latter led Lear and his men in a round that left Lear singing alone and laughed at by his men. It was an early indication of the ridicule into which he would fall.

The strongest supporting performances came from Lear’s older daughters. Olivia Vinall was an affecting Cordelia, unobtrusive but serviceable in the role, and the close proximity of the cameras was almost certainly did her a disservice by exaggerating a performance that probably seemed subtler in the large space of the Olivier. Yet Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin were fantastically distinguished as Goneril and Regan. Fleetwood was hard-line, a conflicted but firm daughter who stood on principle and whose animosity towards her father emerged from frustration, as made clear as she slapped her father in spontaneous anger at his insults before visibly agonising over what she had done. Martin, by contrast, chewed the scenery to wonderful effect as Regan. Whether clawing at her husband’s clothes in front of their servants, screaming ecstatically as she helped avenge his death or seducing the hapless Oswald with tremendous commitment (here, there was no doubt that Oswald’s loyalties had shifted before his death), Martin’s Regan stole every scene she was in and introduced an element of unpredictability that elevated scenes beyond mundanity. While both daughters were given relatively melodramatic deaths (Goneril cut her throat on stage; Regan convulsed under a table), they also offered fascinatingly conflicting responses to their father that came to dominate the narrative.

Yet other performances were less successful. Sam Troughton’s Edmund was hammy, wild-eyed and staring but flat in voice. Interestingly, the usual images of Edgar and Edmund were reversed. Edmund was bookish, seen plotting in a study and wearing glasses and tweed (though his habit of taking off his glasses to give soliloquies implied the deception even here). Yet while the performanec was bland, the reversal of Edgar and Edmund’s usual images was of interest. Tom Brooke’s Edgar was a cynic, first seen drinking and smoking, and later becoming a disaffected, moody and unheroic revenger. Frustratingly, his ‘Tom’ and ‘Edgar’ voices blended into one, leaving his naked mad scenes monotonous as the transitions between roles and voices were lost. Richard Clothier’s Albany seemed relatively incidental to the action until a tense confrontation with Goneril where he began throttling her, though this came rather suddenly and uncharacteristically, while Michael Nardone’s Cornwall was something of a stereotyped thug, rolling up his sleeves and relishing his violent treatment of his prisoners. He generated a fine moment of subtlety, however, as he welcomed and praised Edmund, his eyes lingering on Edmund’s self-inflicted wound for long enough to suggest that he knew exactly what had happened, yet still chose him as an ally.

Technically, this was one of the sloppiest NT Live broadcasts I’ve yet attended. Twice, cameras moved the wrong way yet had to pan desperately to find the actors rather than the editor switching to another feed. Microphones slipped and the sound mix was frequently skewed, most noticeably as Lear held Cordelia, squeezing the mike so that his heartbeat drowned out everything. Poor choices of shot caused key reactions to be missed or blocking to interfere with the view; but more generally, there was none of the dynamism that characterised the filming of Coriolanus, Macbeth or Frankenstein. Not since Phedre have I felt so frustrated by the limitations of the medium.

This big production did not always translate well to the screen. Mendes was keen to foreground violence; yet, seen in close-up, the bloodshed was alternately mundane and funny. Cornwall and his servants were as stilted as robots as they stood before one another before the servant jabbed his knife politely into his master. Oswald jerked awkwardly to his own death after kneeling upright and chatting for an improbably long time given the huge laceration in his neck. And the final confrontation between Edgar and Edmund, shot from mid-distance, was utterly devoid of any drama as the former walked up and stabbed him in the stomach, an act of anti-heroism that felt bored rather than pointed. While part of the purpose here was to illustrate Edgar’s increasing divorce from emotion or feeling, the scene felt itself disinterested.

Violence was at the heart of the two major instances of rewriting. During the joint-stool scene, set in a disused bathroom, Scarborough’s Fool pranced about the stage, pretending to be Regan as Lear chased ‘her’. Picking up a piece of lead piping, Lear proceeded to bludgeon the Fool to death, forcing him into a bathtub and leaving his legs dangling over the edge. Yet bizarrely, Kent and Edgar barely reacted, watching and then essentially ignoring the act as they calmed Lear down. Even Gloucester reacted only in passing to the sight of the body, and the Fool himself somehow revived to give his final line with a quivering hand raised above the tub. Neither surreal nor sober enough to convince, the sequence was simply crass, and inconsequential on the rest of the production. Later, all reference to the duel between Edgar and Edmund was removed; instead, Edgar simply arrived with the corpse of Gloucester and revealed himself to his brother before stabbing him. Stripping the moment of ceremony is one thing, and was in keeping with an unusually bitter Edgar, but rendered the scene dramatically inert. It also meant Edmund was dead before he could repent – Lear entered unbidden and unsought, moving straight to despair and thus losing the dramatic tension of the brief moment of possible reprieve.

Yet when the production worked, it worked wonders. In his madness, Beale’s Lear was exposed and honest. While his cries of remorse on realising what he had done to the Fool rang hollow given that scene’s artifice, his later appearances were never less than heartbreaking. Sitting with Stephen Boxer’s similarly moving Gloucester, he realised after a period of ranting that his old friend needed to hear his recognition, and he pulled the sobbing man towards him, cradling him quietly and rocking him in his arms. Later he acted similarly for Cordelia, hushing her and holding her, recovering sanity with his kindness. Yet Beale was repeatedly undermined by undignified decisions; putting Lear into a straitjacket and tranquislising him was a particularly banal anticlimax to the encounter with Gloucester. To watch this production was to see drama – moving, human interactions – repeatedly interrupted by jarring ‘Drama’ – the dramatic thundering chords that ended every scene with the subtlety of an Eastenders drum beat, or the silent standing masses. While the huge number of extras made for a lively and dangerous scene at Goneril’s house, as their chants overshadowed and threatened the hostess, later appearances of the crowd simply consisted of groups of people walking on, standing silently (and not reacting to what was happening) and then walking off again en masse, in blocking symptomatic of the static qualities of the scenes.

The bluffness and aggression of the production were in keeping with the bluntness elsewhere, and in this the production felt aligned with Rupert Goold’s similarly disappointing production for Liverpool Everyman that, like this, reduced the higher concerns to a combination of (moving) human deterioration and (gratutious) mass violence. While this production was far more successful than Goold’s, I still felt a division here between a tremendous Lear and a weak Lear, and the hasty ending to the Edgar-Edmund plot seemed to suggest even further a divided interest. Yet as a vehicle for Beale’s subtle performance of decline, awakening and grief, the production more than justified itself. More disheartening was a return for NT Live to a dull, staid and frequently lagging broadcast presentation, the slowness of which I’m inclined to blame for certain of the problems addressed above, and I hope the next production sees a return to form.

Posted in Theatre review