King Lear is an intimate play about collapse, political and personal. In the National’s new Sam Mendes/Simon Russell Beale production (the two obviously have a strong working relationship having worked together on Winter’s Tale and Cherry Orchard in New York and the Old Vic as well as at the Donmar), the scale is monumental, literal and modern.
Jackboots, army combats and helicopters are once again much in evidence. Like Nick Hytner’s Henry V and Othello, Mendes’s King Lear is firmly rooted in the war-torn battleground of today. Apocalypse Now is come again as a semi-circular wall of flame leaps up to encircle the back wall as France and England lock horns.
Little is left to the imagination which has its advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, for those seeing the play for the first time, the narrative couldn’t be clearer. Russell Beale’s Lear, uniformed and surrounded by a battalion of soldiery is clearly a tyrannical ruler who when his will is thwarted – Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him – resorts to a truly terrifying turn of fury.
This is a man clearly used to getting his own way whose gradual descent into madness or wisdom is plainly and some might feel bravely unsentimental. `I am a man more sinned against than sinning’ seems for once unconscionable self-pity on Lear’s part.
Eventually Lear’s loss of his dearest daughter does strike the human heart. But, Mendes’ brutalism means that humanity in this production comes from other directions, perhaps as it should – from Tom Brooke’s extraordinary Edgar, edging towards Dostoyefskyian The Idiot depths; Adrian Scarborough’s wonderfully musical, bowler-hatted Fool, Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester.
However, for all its epic scale and parallels with contemporary totalitarianism – Sam Troughton’s blonde-haired Edmund is the very essence of fascist opportunism and there is even a totemic statue a la Stalin or Saddam Hussein – Mendes’ approach is alienating. Realism begins to look awfully like cliche when a production is unable or unwilling to venture more into the metaphorical.
Still, the play, as always, triumphs, its basic message of bearing affliction and Edgar’s final words – surely the saddest ever written – seared once more into the soul.