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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear

I just saw Simon Russell Beale as King Lear in Sam Mendes’ production for the National Theatre, through a National Theatre Live cinema broadcast.

I wish I could say that the production was good, but I can not.

I recommend that you see it for yourself, and make up your own mind. Here is a link for tickets and showtimes:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would like to share my thoughts with you.

I will be happy to see any future productions by Sam Mendes, and any performances by Mr. Beale, but this King Lear was misconceived.

Perhaps the greatest error in this production is the concept of making Lear a dictator like Joseph Stalin.

I have no problem with putting Shakespeare in different periods, but having Lear as a 1930’s-era tyrant is a very bad idea.

Shakespeare's King Lear character is supposed to be a great king. He is supposed to be loved and admired by the best people in his kingdom, like Cordelia (his good daughter) and loyal servants like Kent, who is a good man.

The tragedy of King Lear is that he becomes a tyrant, he goes mad, and he destroys what was good about his kingdom.

Simply put, there is no tragedy if Lear is a Stalinesque dictator. 

Dictators like Stalin, or Nicolae Ceaușescu, or Muammar Qaddafi are by definition tyrants, are mad, and have already ruined their countries by their very existence.

The tragedy is watching a great man crumble under the weight of his greatness.

If Lear is a tyrant, then it turns the entire play upside down and turns it inside out. It makes Lear a bad guy, and everyone who was bad is now good.

In this version, Lear divides his country very dramatically in what looks like a Stalin show trial, complete with microphones that make everyone sound robotic and inhuman.

When Cordelia says “Nothing” to her father, we are supposed to feel her pain, and confusion. She truly loves her father, but she can not be like her evil sisters, whose proclamations of love to Lear are empty and deceitful words.

But if Lear is bad (as this production would have us think) then Cordelia is bad for loving him. If Lear is bad, then Goneril and Regan are right to hate him, and lie to him.

If Lear is bad, then Kent is bad for serving him so loyally. In fact, why should Kent serve such a bad man like Lear with such loyalty? Perhaps Kent is in truth a very bad man.

If Lear is bad, then the Fool is even more foolish for serving him.

If Lear is bad, then we should root for his destruction and eventual death.

So, this basic fundamental flaw undermines the entire show, and made it a chore to watch.

Simon Russell Beale is a great actor. But I do not think there is any way to act Lear as a tyrant and make him a compelling tragic character. I don’t fault him for his performance, when the entire foundation of the Lear character has been taken away.

During a brief documentary clip showing us behind the scenes of the play, Mr. Beale described how he studied Lewy Body dementia, and how Lear presents many symptoms of this disorder.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to this study, too often Mr. Beale’s performance of Lear was a collection of affectations and tics, rather than a full flesh and blood character. While I can not argue against a possible diagnosis of Lear as having Lewy Body, it should have been one of many attributes, rather than the foundation for the character.

Adrian Scarborough and Stanley Townsend

However, there were some very good moments here and there throughout the play, and some very fine performances, including Stanley Townsend’s very charismatic Kent, Adrian Scarborough’s slippery and sly Fool and Sam Troughton’s humorously diabolical Edmund.

I thought the use of the stage was innovative and interesting, especially as Kent tries to get Lear into the hovel, and Edgar as Tom o’Bedlam appears.

I was very disappointed in the storm sequence. Lear and the Fool are lifted over the stage on a ramp as the storm blows and thunders, but as soon as they are at the top, they have no choice but to stand as still as possible — since they might fall off!

I would have much preferred to see Lear move on stage and react and inter-act with the storm. Having such a fine actor as Mr. Beale stand still during such a pivotal scene is an odd choice which stifled his dynamic talent.

By the conclusion, as characters are killed off and dying, it is very hard to feel any emotion. There were some in the audience with me who laughed as characters died. 

I couldn’t blame them, after all, in this Lear universe, there is no one to care for.


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