King Lear @ National Theatre

I’m glad the split reviews about Sam Mendes’ King Lear didn’t dissuade me from seeing this play because, again, he has created a well-staged piece of Shakespeare. The set design, costumes, interpretation of characters, and the brilliant acting made the butt-numbing 3 and a half hour show bearable. It was also pretty funny when an ASM ran on stage because the set piece that created the transition onto Act 4, Scene 4 decided it didn’t want to move. His awkward face cracked me up.

Photo: National Theatre

The play begins with Lear, performed exceptionally by Simon Beale, wanting to divide his wealth between his three daughters in a very public ceremony. When his youngest, Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) truthfully answers his question “Which of you shall we say doth love us most,” Lear is not pleased, and Cordelia is forced to leave. When Lear’s promise begins to get to his other two daughters’ heads, he begins to realise he has made a mistake, but by the end of the play, it is too late.

Photo: National Theatre

I really liked this version of the play. The modern war-like elements of the setting made the story relevant, and it was easy to picture the first scene as something that would be televised today if it was happening in real life. Lear’s costume allowed him to be visibly the head of state, but the costume changes also humanised him a lot more, as we saw him in an old man cardigan and slippers, then in a hospital gown. In particular, it was the Fool’s (Adrian Scarborough) costume that I liked the most. A subtlety jazzier suit than the other characters, and a small feather on his hat made him the clown of the piece, but didn’t remove him completely from the ensemble.

Photo: National Theatre

I particularly enjoyed all the blood in this performance. The various interpretations of what happens to Lear’s fool are always interesting to watch in different versions of the play. Mendes chooses to have Lear get rid of the Fool himself, in a unused bath tub, where the brutality of the whole sequence is theatricalised through a lot of bright red blood. Poor Beale did seem to be struggling to keep the punches going though, I mean he is pretty old. It made sense that Lear would do something like that in the heat of the moment, just like he banished his daughter. The best of the blood-filled scenes was the removal of Gloucester’s (Stephen Boxer) eyes. It was a very American-Italian mob moment. It was awesome.

Photo: National Theatre

This was a great version of King Lear by Mendes. In particular Boxer’s performance stood out the most, who encapsulated Gloucester’s tragedy brilliantly, and it was  hard to not feel bad for him. The relationship between him and his son, played by Tom Brook, was interesting to watch too. The change in the dynamics of their relationship from the start to the end of the play was very clear and well interpreted. I think even though the play is extremely long (like Martin Scorsese Long), it is still definitely worth a watch. Just be prepared for uncomfortable incest weirdness, and muddy nakedness.


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