Review: Cuckoo at the Unicorn Theatre
Review: Russell Tovey in The Pass at the Royal Court

Review: Sam Mendes directs King Lear at the National Theatre

Simon Russell Beale plays King Lear in the National Theatre production

King Lear isn't a favourite Shakespeare play of mine. It's probably sacrilege to say but I find it a bit meandering and frustrating and never really engage with the tragedy as I do in his other plays.

I persist in watching though in the hope that one day something will click and this particular production had the draw of Sam Mendes directing and Simon Russell Beale in the lead, supported by the likes of Anna Maxwell Martin, Tom Brooke, Stanley Townsend, Sam Troughton, Kate Fleetwood, Adrian Scarborough and Richard Clothier.

Mendes has chosen to give the play a contemporary setting hinting that the King has been dictator-like in his rule. There is a large additional company of soldiers whose presence is a formidable backdrop, the numbers diminishing as Lear's power fades only to reappear supporting his daughters Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin).

Simon Russell Beale puts in a strong if not unfamiliar performance but his Lear is somewhat in the shadow of some of the younger characters.  Anna Maxwell Martin was one of the delights, bringing a new level of bitchiness to Regan, stalking the stage in high heels and using her sexuality as a weapon. Likewise Sam Troughton's machiavellian Edmund almost warranted a cry of 'boo-hiss'.

He served as a nice contrast to Tom Brooke playing his duped half-brother Edgar. Brooke gives Edgar an innocent, kind and trusting nature that is easily exploited while later his naked and muddy, in-hiding 'Tom' provides a stoic force for good.  

In theory Cordelia should have the same effect but despite inadvertently being the catalyst for the King and the family's demise she doesn't really play much of a part for the bulk of the story and her tragic denouement doesn't quite pack a full emotional punch.

Lear's interweaving plots of rebellious and power-hungry children trampling aged-parent and siblings  never quite fully creates any real sense of urgency or danger. There are moments of spark and moments of sympathy and moments of grotesque horror but yet again I walked away from another King Lear feeling not completely satisfied or moved. This was a preview and seemed pretty polished as a production.

Tickets for performances up to March 25 have sold out but tickets for performances beyond that go on sale in February. The NT Live broadcast is May 1.


Sam Mendes directed Mr W in Skyfall.