The National Theatre’s King Lear

Published January 24, 2014

If you were asked to create a King Lear cast packed with stage performers of high reputation, chances are you wouldn’t be far away from the National Theatre production.

It is a remarkable cast list that speaks volumes for the pulling power of the historic institution and director Sam Mendes, and their reputations for staging Shakespeare.

Simon Russell Beale, a regular collaborator both with Mendes and the National, heads that list as a Lear for whom anger, more often than not, heads the way. Who can blame him? As Shakespeare’s aging king he opts to split his land between his three daughters only to be betrayed repeatedly by the duplicitous duo who claim to love him most.

When first we meet him, his beard, closely cropped hair, great coat and stature give him the feel of a broiling dwarf dictator straight out of Tolkien. As his world falls apart and his attire alters, it is in the affecting moments of quiet he masterfully and touchingly exposes Lear’s fears and frailties; the terror of losing his mind, the reality of aging.

Of the sisters, Anna Maxwell Martin is a slinky, sensual Regan who takes a touch too much pleasure from the famous blinding of Gloucester. The gruesome act, on this occasion, may have many audience members constrained to screw-top wine for years to come. Kate Fleetwood is a cold, unwavering Goneril.

The latest actress to be taken under the nurturing wing of the NT, following an acclaimed performance in Othello, Olivia Vinall brings steely strength and determination to Cordelia, Lear’s third daughter who refuses to prove the depth of her love at the opening, but does exactly that by the end.

Tom Brooke is a less mad, more caring Edgar, Gloucester’s son forced into hiding by a lie, who reappears to nurse his blinded father. Sam Troughton, as Gloucester’s illegitimate offspring Edmund, has the air of a scheming, duplicitous banker.

Adrian Scarborough brings a deep melancholy and heart-achingly unspoken love to Lear’s Fool, inadvertently providing the second most shocking moment of the evening when Lear’s madness hits tipping point.

If this all feels a little listy, there are more who could be included, such is the wealth of talent on display.

With striking lighting design by Paul Pyant that makes the most of spotlights and shadows to evoke a sense of lurking danger, and cinematic sound design by Paul Arditti, it all adds up to another Shakespearean triumph for Mendes, the National Theatre and Russell Beale. Though after the winter we’ve had, few people will thank the acclaimed actor for commanding nature to “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” with quite such conviction…

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