In this production of …Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, a terrifically accomplished actor, Simon Russell Beale, performs the lead role and Academy Award winning director, Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) directs.
The plot; an aged king, prior to descending the throne, decides to conduct a test by asking his three daughters how much they love him in order to then divide his kingdom between them, based on which one is most eloquent in praising him. His favorite daughter, Cordelia (Olivia Vinall), fails to flatter him to his satisfaction and we then watch Lear’s world descend into chaos.
This is a play that has a timeless and universal theme about ageing, death and the loss of home and sanity.
While this production has a brilliant writer, as well as an outstanding cast, director and design team, the results are, unfortunately questionable.
In brief, Sam Mendes directing choices regarding period and style are the major sources of this production's problems. The period is contemporary and the acting style is 'over the top' and 'played to type', which in acting jargon means, if your character is evil, then play that evil quality full out.
While I am not a purest who expects every Shakespearean production to be done in period, Mendes' decision to go contemporary backfired. Not because of the modern factor by itself, but mostly because there is far too much emphasis on contemporary minutiae; for example, the inclusion of highly unnecessary, realistic, contemporary details, such as Lear's hospital gown and an IV tube jutting out of his hand. This immediately grabs the audience's focus, does nothing to enhance the given moment, the acting or the writing and most assuredly weakens a potentially poignant moment in the play. Plainly stated, the concept causes too many distractions.
Unfortunately, there are, many other instances throughout the production when modern props (microphones), costumes (the sisters' haute couture dresses), makeup (Edgar's elaborate tattoos) or set pieces (the boardwalk that doubles as "the" cliff) inadvertently cause the audience to switch their concentration from the drama, emotions and language of the play to the irrelevant items. Anything in a director's work that takes you away from the story, rather than involving you more in the unfolding events, is a poor choice.
With regard to the acting style of this production, Simon Russell Beale was asked by Mendes to shave his head in order to create a severe image and to play a strong, cruel, feared, contemporary dictator. And Beale does so relentlessly.
In researching Lear's behavior, both Beale and Mendes concluded that the ageing Lear's major mood swings indicated a type of dementia that also included a form of Parkinsons. And thus, Beale's Lear is portrayed with a great deal of jerky, staggering, constantly twitching movements. This Lear is often agonized, limping, hunched and tortured. Not surprisingly, at times, this was very distracting. It's a tribute to Beale's brilliance as an actor that he could do all that writhing and still elicit our admiration for him as an actor and our sympathy for the character.
As for the other cast members, all top tier, extremely talented British actors, they too were limited in their performance possibilities, mainly because of Mendes’ concept choice, which forced them to emphasize their character type, to extreme. The two nasty daughters (Goneril, Kate Fleetwood and Regan, Anna Maxwell Martin) were so unceasingly cruel and brutal, that their characters bordered on stereotypical and cliché. In fact, almost every detail in this production was taken to the extreme, full of sound and fury...a full-on heavy metal approach. Clearly, there were few subtleties. It's the kind of production that makes you want to shout out, "Tone it down"!
There are a fair number of very tender, poignant, moving moments in Shakespeare's script and I was actually moved to tears twice in this production. When the two lost-soul, fathers, Lear and Gloucester, both almost totally destroyed physically and mentally, meet on the plain by chance and Lear suddenly recognizes Gloucester and says, "I know that voice", that moment worked for me. Additionally, I was touched when this Lear, who is very aware of his dementia and terrified of losing his mind pathetically pleads, "Let me not be mad".
The set, consisting of cleverly designed neutral platforms, allowed for seamless, rapid scene changes.
However, it was all the sturm und drang that in the end left me disappointed; particularly since I have seen other more poignant Lears that are in sharp contrast to this. For example, a recent production that took place at the Polonsky Shakespeare Centre in New York, featured Michael Pennington in a far more delicate portrayal of Lear, which New York Times critic Ben Brantley referred to as, "a production that has toned down the bluster and makes it clear that this portrait of a majesty undone is as much a heart-wrenching domestic drama as an epic tragedy".
Would that Sam Mendes had borrowed some of that thinking when he directed his production.
I have frequently said, and still believe, in spite of my less than enthusiastic response to this production, that these National Theatre Live productions via satellite are a phenomenal opportunity at minimal expense to see some of the best and most interesting theatre coming out of London.
The Earl of Gloucester
The Duke of Albany
Jonathan Dryden Taylor
The Duke of Burgundy
Anna Maxwell Martin
The Duke of Cornwall
Simon Russell Beale
The Earl of Kent