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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Anna Maxwell Martin and Simon Russell Beale/ Ph: Mark Douet

Sometimes the great pleasure of theatre lies in the pain it puts us through. That’s certainly true of this production of Shakespeare’s harrowing tragedy – the seventh collaboration by actor Simon Russell Beale and director Sam Mendes. Before a single word is spoken, as the boiling sun that hangs over a darkened stage vanishes in an eclipse, it exerts a sense of deep foreboding. Trepidation is not misplaced. What follows is grueling and, in its rich emotional anatomising of a mind descending into dereliction, mercilessly detailed.
Anthony Ward’s designs offer an unyielding environment of black granite split by a cruciform pattern of pale stone. Paul Pyant lights it with pitilessly precise shafts; Paddy Cunneen’s soundtrack rumbles ominously. This is a cold, hard Britain, ruled by a king who is clearly a military dictator. When Russell Beale’s Lear divides his kingdom, it is at a regimented state occasion, with ranks of soldiers looking on.
Bearded, and his hair white and close-cropped, Russell Beale moves with the ache of advanced years, but with the discipline and impatience of a tyrannous despot. Bullet-headed, he thrusts his chin forward, his neck sunken into shoulders and his back slightly hunched. He relishes the pomp of the occasion, as he doles out the goodies to Goneril and Regan, who, in their chic clothes and shiny high heels, tower over him. But the defiance of Cordelia (a luminous Olivia Vinall) sends him into a rage that sees him hurling furniture – and then clapping his hands with childish, spiteful glee as, having stripped his youngest daughter of a dowry, he forces her to stand on a chair while her suitors appraise her as a marriage prospect.
Her elder siblings are a formidably toxic pair. Kate Fleetwood’s sleek, flinty Goneril devours the map with her eyes as she contemplates her new property and power. Later, her affair with Sam Troughton’s creepy, pinstriped Edmund has a disturbing sado-masochistic quality, as he half-throttles her and she gasps with pleasure. As Regan, Anna Maxwell Martin is overtly sexual, clambering on to her father’s knee with girlish giggles, and becoming horribly excited when she witnesses the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes. These are women warped by a world of cruelty and violence.
And while Russell Beale embarks on Lear’s rapid unraveling into the torture of self-knowledge and, here, wholly convincing dementia, there are performances of striking nuance on every side. Adrian Scarborough is a tender, melancholy Fool; his reward for following Lear through the storm – represented here, with help from Jon Driscoll’s projection designs – with roiling black clouds, forked lightning and a narrow, vertiginous ramp that elevates the crazed monarch high up against the howling elements – is to be battered to bloody death by the confused and deranged Lear. It’s a moment that shocks and appalls. Tom Brooke’s Edgar has a gentle fragility, and Stephen Boxer as his father, Gloucester, is devastatingly affecting, his blinding preceded by a horrific sequence of waterboarding, in his own wine cellar, using a bottle of vodka. Stanley Townsend’s Kent, meanwhile, is a tough, massive presence throughout, his almost brutish implacability the key to his survival in a state-run riot.
At the last we find Russell Beale’s bewildered Lear wandering on the beach at Dover, a plastic carrier bag full of flowers in one hand, barefoot and dressed in a hospital gown. Strapped by Cordelia’s military medics into a straitjacket, he is unbearably pitiful; yet there’s still more agony to come, as he struggles through a pharmaceutical haze to recognise his daughter and then, keening and bellowing with grief, mourns her execution until his heart cracks and he shudders out of his tormented existence. This is excruciating and indispensable theatre: epic yet intimate, cruel but compassionate, and utterly human.


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