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KING LEAR - National Theatre Live

The partnership of actor Simon Russell Beale, described by The Independent as "the greatest stage actor of his generation", and theater and film director Sam Mendes, Cabaret; American Beauty; Road To Perdition; Skyfall, go back some 25 years. For 2014, they reunite to deliver a chillingly-memorable KING LEAR at the Olivier Theatre for National Theater Live.

To bring a fresh perspective to this new production, both actor and director mill both military history and medical science. The setting of this LEAR is modern yet nondescript. England is a totalitarian state, run by a tyrannical Lear, supported by numerous supernumeraries all dressed in militaristic gray flannel.

As the play opens, Lear's premature decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters -- subject to a self-serving insistence to pit one daughter against the other in their prophesied love for their father – becomes a high-state occasion, complete with UN-like dais and microphones. Under Mendes' daring direction, intimate occasions like this take on the mantle of a public address. And as such, this production triumphantly magnifies the tragedy so inherent in LEAR, considered Shakespeare's most successful tragedy.

Yes, die-hard Shakespeare enthusiast will take issue with a number of this production's bold deviations. Nonetheless, these bold choices are effective and bring fresh points of view to this often-staged play. I, for one, applaud Mendes's brilliance in showing Lear graphically and violently kill The Fool on stage under his fit of madness. After all, Shakespeare's text simply stops the mention of The Fool after Lear succumbs to madness, implicitly reminding us that the voice of wisdom and reason, as personified by The Fool, is now useless and irrelevant after Lear's descent into madness.

In Lear's bellicose England, Mendes initially shows a highly-controlled militaristic state. Lear is clearly in control, holding a tight grip on both state and family. After his folly of renouncing his crown and dividing England equally between Goneril and Regan, or more accurately in this production between Albany and Cornwall, the country of England falls to ruin and chaos. And now, madness ensues, not only for Lear but also for the English state. Salvation is now only possible from outside England, specifically from France and the exiled Cordelia.

Simon Russell Beale is brilliant as Lear. His transformation from bullish dictatorial King to roaming madman -- and eventually to sensitive father seeking reconciliation -- is both polished and raw. Ranting his kingdom away to his two elder daughters, Lear's behavior is so bombastic and repulsive that you can almost understand why Kate Fleetwood's Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin's Regan have lost patience with him. His insanity is often harrowing to watch. Then, when all is lost and surrender inevitable, Russell Beale mines the sensitivity of the soul. Delicate, fragile, and oh so moving. In his final scenes, dressed only in a hospital gown and eventually coming to his senses before the devastating death of Cordelia (played by a deeply moving Olivia Vinall), Russell Beale is at his best. The acting is beautifully achieved. He delivers Lear's heart-rending speeches ("let me not be mad") with heart and soul. And his physical acting is so pointed, so studied, complete with facial grimace and finger twitches, that we can see the pay-off from his study of dementia from his nephew in medical school.

The supporting cast is equally fine. Standouts include Stephen Boxer as The Earl of Gloucester; Kate Fleetwood as Goneril; Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan; Olivia Vinall as Cordelia; Sam Troughton as Edmund; and Adrian Scarborough as The Fool. All stellar examples of why no one does Shakespeare like the British.

At 3 ½ hours in length, KING LEAR is always a challenge. However, this production dazzles and zips through at a speedy rate. Anthony Ward's production design speeds the evening along, moving from stripped-down contextual sets to a most-effective use of a stage revolve marked with a symbolic cross. Yes, X marks the spot. The spot for a most engaging evening of classical theater. Not to be missed.

Check the website of National Theater Live for details about US showings and for a cinema broadcast near you.

Armin's Grade: A+
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proteus684711 June 2014
In King Lear, Simon Russell Beale extends his perversely impressive record. Having given us the worst Hamlet ever and the worst Falstaff ever, he now adds Lear to his list of negative ultimates. He has three major modes of delivering his lines--shouting, babbling and ruminating quietly--and is boring in all three. Only once does he come up with a novel line-reading. When told that the Fool has pined away since Cordelia's departure for France, he peevishly whines "I have noted it," as if to say "I'm not stupid, you know." It is characteristic that Beale's one attempt at originality should be a note of sour petulance.

Beale's Lear is stumpy, obese and devoid of authority. He shouts his way through the first scene without scaring anyone, and his curse of Goneril in I.iv is merely tedious. (Goneril herself is undaunted by it, and coolly slaps his face in response). Beale typically acts in a vacuum--his professional motto appears to be "Only disconnect"--and his madness as Lear is not very different from his habitual onstage solipsism. Since he cannot convey love or affection, and has no capacity for pathos, his reunion with Cordelia, his reassurances to her as they are led off to prison, and his lament over her lifeless body are all aridly unmoving. One cannot understand why Cordelia loves this man, why Kent risks his life to follow and protect him, and why the Fool never dreams of deserting him. Yet one also cannot understand why Goneril and Regan despise him. There is simply nothing there to inspire extreme emotions one way or the other, except of course among those who hate being bored.

Sam Mendes has directed with his customary lack of freshness and insight. The opening scene is dominated by a dais with microphones, an overly-familiar prop in current Shakespearean productions. Lear murders the Fool in a fit of insanity, just as he did 30 years ago at the RSC (Adrian Noble, 1982). The final scene degenerates into postmodern abstraction, and becomes almost unrecognizable in the process. Edgar and Edmund do not square off in a duel: Edgar simply enters and stabs his strangely unresisting brother to death. Goneril and Regan die onstage rather than off, but the other actors seem barely to notice. Gloucester's cadaver is also lugged in, again occasioning little or no reaction. The dying Edmund does not try to redeem himself by saving the lives of Lear and Cordelia. There are other cuts, yet for all these added lacunae, the scene is staged and played in a desultory manner that robs it of any impact. The rest of the production is directorially unremarkable, and in fact routine.

Finally, there are no worthwhile performances among the ensemble. Kate Fleetwood, a congenitally creepy actress, plays Goneril like a sinister vamp in an old talking movie. Anna Maxwell Martin dishes up a giddy, quasi-psychotic Regan whose blithering delivery is sometimes incomprehensible. As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer gets a surprising number of laughs for a man with a pair of bleeding sockets. Sam Troughton's characterization of Edmund is limited to wearing glasses when pretending to be decent and removing them when not. His lanky brother Edgar (Tom Brooke) appears to be suffering from Asperger's syndrome. He stares at the ground rather than Edmund during his initial scenes, and greets the news of his father's intention to kill him with an almost shrugging carelessness. This autistic insensibility merges so smoothly into the maunderings of Poor Tom that one cannot be sure if Edgar is ever lucid. Adrian Scarborough's Fool, a pint-sized spiv in a pinstriped suit, isn't funny, trenchant, poignant or haunting, but he does have a nice singing voice. The other supporting actors are forgettable, and I have forgotten them.
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