DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
CAST: Simon Russell Beale, Stephen Boxer, Kate Fleetwood (Goneril), Anna Maxwell Martin, Adrian Scarborough, Stanley Townsend, Sam Troughton, (Edmund) Olivia Vinall
RUNNING TIME: 200 minutes
Drawing on a huge cast and dynamic lead, this theatre production gives us a King Lear more scared of losing his mind than his political power.
Simon Russell Beale gives an intriguing performance as the titular character who is one of Shakespeare’s most contradictory characters.
Even as he loses his political and physical power, he comes into self-knowledge of the loss of his faculties, but that growing self-awareness is itself about to be swept away.
The king starts off painted as an authoritarian despot angered that his favourite, youngest daughter Cordelia (Vinall) stands up to him by not flattering him into giving her a third of his kingdom.
He divides his kingdom between his two elder daughters and tosses Cordelia out on her ear, or rather sells her to France for no fee at all, and then ends up ruing his decision.
Shuffling between Goneril (Fleetwood) and Regan (Maxwell Martin), he loses more and more say over his affairs and by the time Cordelia tries to save him, it is all for naught, because this is a Shakespearean tragedy and basically everyone ends up dead.
Director Sam Mendes presents an interesting dichotomy in his work – when he works on film, his offerings have a theatrical bent, and it seems when he works on stage his theatre pieces evince an epic, filmic feel.
Here, video projections help to create an impressively large scope to the background.
Characters are dressed in contemporary clothing, but there is a timeless quality to the action, even when the soundscape suggests rolling tanks and flying helicopters, it could be any time in history.
The revolving set creates spaces ranging from intimate rooms to a large maize field overshadowed by clouds. Meticulous attention to costuming detail is combined with open-ended, timeless themes of power relationships and personal wisdom.
Goneril and Regan are more clearly delineated as characters than Cordelia.
With just a few scenes, the two older sisters are depicted as very different people who use their power very differently. They hurtle to their doom in their quest for power so long denied.
Cordelia seems wimpy and soft in comparison.
The Edmund and Edgar storyline is severely underplayed, although these two characters drive a lot of the narrative, and the relationship between Edgar (Troughton) and his father, the Earl of Gloucester (Boxer), who has to lose his sight before he truly sees his son, also falls by the wayside.
Despite his important role in the story, this Fool (Scarborough) isn’t really all that funny, even when you see the words float by on the screen (the entire performance was subtitled) – but this is all about Lear anyway.
This portrayal gives us a poignant side to Lear, scared, angry and, eventually, a man of empty threats and, if not bewilderment, confusion because he doesn’t know why he no longer has the power to make people do what he wants.
• The National Theatre Live broadcast (from the Oliver Theatre) of King Lear screens at Cinema Nouveau in Joburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town on June 14, 15, 18 and 19 and at The Fugard Bioscope, Cape Town, on June 29.