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WILL AND ME: National Theatre's King Lear (2014) Review

Updated on July 1, 2014
The original poster featuring Simon Russell Beale in the title role.
The original poster featuring Simon Russell Beale in the title role. | Source

NATIONAL THEATRE'S KING LEAR (2014) REVIEW:

CAST: Simon Russell Beale, Stanley Townsend, Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin, Olivia Vinall, Adrian Scarborough, Stephen Boxer, Sam Troughton, Richard Clothier, Michael Nardone, Ross Waiton, Paapa Essiedu, Tom Brooke, Simon Manyonda, Gary Powell, Daniel Millar, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Colin Haigh, Hannah Stokely, Cassie Bradley.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director—Sam Mendes

Producers—The National Theatre of London

Writer—William Shakespeare

Designer—Anthony Ward

Lighting—Paul Pyant

Music—Paddy Cunneen

Projection designer—Jon Driscoll

Fight director—Terry King

Sound—Paul Arditti

Production Manager—Jim Leaver

(Cast and crew information courtesy of Melbourne's Nova Cinema and National Theatre Live.)

***

Now that I have reviewed a live recording of a Royal Shakespeare Company produced project, it’s time for me to review a recording streamed across the globe by another important theatre company in the history of English entertainment: The National Theatre of London! And their latest offering: King Lear, starring the iconic Simon Russell Beale as the title role.

For those who are not familiar with the play (and believe me, there are many fans of Shakespeare who are yet to see or read this play due to its complexity), King Lear tells the story of an aged king who decides to divide his king between his three daughters according to which of them is most eloquent in praising him. However, his favourite daughter, Cordelia, says nothing. Not even a fake gesture of affection. From that point on, Lear’s world descends into chaos as his daughters turn against him and force him to live a life of homelessness and prosecution.

Even though I’m fairly fond of the 2008 production by Trevor Nunn, this production has many things to like about it. Since it was directed by Sam Mendes (of Skyfall fame), the expectations fit as perfectly as a glove: The sets, lighting and direction were clearly done by a director and a creative team who give a whole new meaning to the word Genius, and the acting quality of the cast rarely disappoints.

The most notable performances are: Kate Fleetwood, a very sexy Anna Maxwell Martin, and Olivia Vinall as Lear’s three daughters, Coneril, Regan and Cordelia, giving a much better three-dimensional performance compared to the two out of three daughters I had to watch when I reviewed the Trevor Nunn production a couple of months ago; Stanley Townsend as The Earl of Kent (though his portrayal of character comes off as a VERY unlikable dick sometimes); and of course, Simon Russell Beale himself, giving the often “challenging” role of Lear a great deal of realism and truthful tragedy never seen in the role before. In his interpretation, Lear is portrayed a dementia suffering with a mental condition that gets worse upon each misfortune he faces. To see a once feared man fall into such a sad state of decline is the most powerful Shakespeare performance I have ever seen. (And I still have a huge list of Shakespeare films still to watch!)

At first, Beale may look pathetic and stoutish to be someone as commanding (and DE-manding) as King Lear; but as you watch his performance further (and take the time to watch the interviews he gave for National Theatre Live where he discusses the research he did for his version of Lear), you eventually leave the show feeling like you have just experienced a heart-stopping epiphany about the human condition and how much disrespect we show to those who have to struggle with mental illness every day. (If you have a loved one suffering from dementia or any kind of mental illness that has a negative effect on how they function at work or at home, this is the sort of production that will have you in tears.)

My only criticism with the production is Adrian Scarborough as The Fool: To make a long story short (believe me, the complaint you read now is a shorter version of a longer paragraph I wrote in the first draft of this review regarding how much I was p***ed off with the performance), I expected to see comedy gold and a performance that reminds one of Robin Williams or Russell Howard or Ross Noble! But throughout the entire first half of the show (The Fool is long dead by the second half), I had to watch a performance so impotent that not even a purple pill could improve it! I was forced to watch an UNFUNNY cretin who tries too hard to make us laugh, and in the end, he fails miserably! (You know that it’s the end of the world when you come across a thespian whose s**t acting makes Adam Sandler look like Orson Welles!)

If this production is ever brought out on DVD (and judging by the things they advertise in their gift shop section on their website, I’m pretty sure you can), it will be worth your money. As the years progress, a new generation of directors just keep on finding new ways to make King Lear feel so refreshing and tidied up. (I can’t wait to see what other productions of King Lear the years shall bring us. I just can’t wait.)

Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin with Simon Russell Beale.
Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin with Simon Russell Beale. | Source

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