Review: King Lear at the National Theatre

King LearBy 

When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools’  

This line encapsulates the twin problems facing any producer engaged in the task of turning the text of Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear into a new theatre production.

First, how to tread the fine line between ridiculousness and pathos when faced with situations of extreme foolishness, for example, Lear’s bizarre decision to divide his kingdom according to which daughter can most eloquently declare her love for him, and Gloucester’s attempted suicide jump from a ledge raised barely a meter above the ground.

And second, how to keep the play real for its audience, mediating carefully between realistic violence and scenes of such bloody horror that the audience recoiled in disgust.

In my opinion, the National Theatre’s production of King Lear, starring Simon Russell Beale in the title role, maintains this delicate balance, recognising and embracing absurdity, yet infusing even the most ridiculous scenes with a sense of tragedy and pity.

The spectacle of Lear tottering around in a night gown, feeding a banana to an imagined mouse, raised a laugh from the audience, yet it was a laugh which recognised how piteous the scene was as well as its absurdity.

With such a popular and critically claimed actor in the title role, the quality of acting in this production was expectably high.

Simon Russell Beale played a short, round and waddling Lear, a casting choice in blatant defiance of Shakespeare’s carefully imbedded instruction upon the actor’s physique; this Lear is not ‘every inch a king’ in the most obvious (vertical) sense.

Yet, Lear has astounding stage presence and skill, commanding respect and empathy, if not from his daughters, then certainly from his audience.

Lear’s deterioration into madness in the second half felt particularly poignant; with an increasingly ageing population and the rise of neurological disorders such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s, the shifting power relations between parent and child and the issues of elderly care become more and more important in contemporary society.

Lear aside, the remaining cast members were also impressive. Stephen Boxer played a lovable and loyal Gloucester, but Tom Brooke (drug-addict / Sherlock’s protégé in the most recent episode of the popular BBC drama) stole the stage as Gloucester’s semi-naked and mud splattered son, Edgar.

I overheard more interval conversations about ‘the tramp from Sherlock’ than about the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, the gruesome spectacle which ended the play’s first half, but this should be credited to the popularity of Sherlock and not to a deficiency in the performance itself.

Cassie Bradley’s Cordelia was convincing, if a little wet around the edges, and Kate Fleetwood played a complex and fascinating Goneril.

Personally, I found Regan, played by Anna Maxwell-Martin, a little over-sexualised, with too much shrill screaming and not enough clothing . But that might have been my personal taste; the teenage guys sat just in front of me seemed to really enjoy her performance.

Everything about the production was clear, clever and comprehensible. This last point is, for me, a crucial one as I am by no means a Shakespeare scholar – though I did read the Spark Notes summary of King Lear on the train.

I found this performance easy to follow and engaging throughout, and the Shakespearian English was by no means a barrier to the enjoyment and empathic engagement of the audience.

Picture: Mark Douet

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