The Olivier stage at the National Theatre is big; it is a huge space and Sam Mendes is determined to fill it. In every way. From the thirty-odd black-clad soldiers who accompany Lear’s initial entrance to the harsh whirr of helicopters; from the great, ominous clouds scudding across the backdrop to the pints and pints of blood spilled: Mendes’s vision of King Lear is an epic one. The three-and-a-half-hour running time also contributes to the sheer scale of this production.
Yes, King Lear is a play about politics, but Shakespeare isn’t only concerned with politics on a grand, national scale, and Mendes’s bombastic and over-the-top production risks obscuring the smaller, more intimate family tragedy at the heart of the play, the painful collapse of relationships and Lear’s distressing transformation from great ruler to broken madman.
Mendes sets his Lear in a totalitarian state, and his king is a despot, ruling through fear and calling to mind Kim Jong Un, Stalin or Saddam Hussein. In the opening scene he sits holding court, his back to us, spitting through a microphone and calling on his daughters to publicly pronounce their love for him. This sets the tone for the production as a whole: a grand public ceremony concerned with outward appearance rather than any real psychological insight.
It is difficult to feel any sympathy for this Lear. Mendes and Russell Beale’s vision is of a crazed, power-hungry dictator who comes across as slightly mad from the start. For most of the play, Russell Beale appears to have only one register: a strangled shout, often making him appear rather childlike. As a result, we get little sense of Lear’s tragic decline, the plot becomes faintly ridiculous rather than gripping and harrowing, and the closing scenes are much less moving than they ought to be. Mendes’s decision (*spoiler alert*) to explain the Fool’s absence by having Lear bludgeon him to death contributes to our inability to feel anything when Lear loses everything he has, for we, too, have been beaten about the head by his brutal tyranny. In the programme notes, Simon Russell Beale says that ‘there’s got to be something in Lear which is worth loving’, and he is quite right. For me, however, neither he nor Mendes manages to locate and give us that quality.
Thankfully, however, the supporting cast is generally strong. Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin and Olivia Vinall play Lear’s three daughters. Fleetwood and Maxwell Martin are two favourites of mine (I must admit to never having seen Olivia Vinall before), yet I was particularly disappointed by Maxwell Martin’s vampish Regan. Her almost visceral, sexual reaction to Gloucester’s blinding is difficult to believe, and she is more pantomime villain than convincingly chilling. Fleetwood and Vinall are better, the latter managing to bring a quiet strength to Cordelia – a role that is so often something of a cipher – and the former (all cheekbones and power-suits) giving a more compelling and nuanced performance than Maxwell Martin. There is a sense of hidden depths and long-nursed hatred about Fleetwood’s Goneril, born of a lifetime of rejection; unlike Maxwell Martin’s hysterical Regan, Fleetwood’s poise and the momentary flickers of pain across her face are more convincingly suggestive of a wickedness and deadly intelligence that have been waiting for the right moment to strike.
Sam Troughton is a pleasingly oleaginous Edmund, warped and twisted as a result of his illegitimacy and consequent snubbing by Gloucester, and Tom Brooke is the highlight of the evening as Edgar, moving credibly from louche youth never without a wine bottle to the plagued, outcast Poor Tom.
Anthony Ward’s sets and Paul Arditti’s sound design are in perfect harmony with Mendes’s vision, which is to say that they, too, are grand in scale, often drowning out the actors and contributing to the sense of distance and lack of intimacy. It is also rather uninspiring to see the stormy background change to one of blue skies and golden fields when Cordelia reappears in Act 4.
It is a shame that what many believe to be Shakespeare’s masterpiece suffers here as a result of Mendes’s weighty directorial hand, and that the sense of tragedy is lost. See it for the supporting cast, but this isn’t a King Lear that leaves you feeling battered and bruised for the right reasons.