Skyfall director Sam Mendes’s star-studded production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear at the National is one of the most eagerly awaited cultural events of the year – so does he pull it off?
Emphatically, yes. Mendes, who is due to begin work on the next Bond film later this year, uses the full epic grandeur of the Olivier’s round stage to give us a powerful and brutal modern dress production, a tragedy not just of a family but of a nation.
Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is a violent, aggressive dictator who struts around his court and expects to be obeyed by his huge retinue of black clad soldiers. Later on, the stage is dominated by a huge granite statue of him with the words “Lear” imprinted on the base, demonstrating that this King is more Saddam or Stalin than the “foolish, fond old man” he calls himself at one point. When the war starts, planes shriek overhead and Tom Brooke’s Edgar – last seen as Sherlock’s new helpmate Wiggins in the Benedict Cumberbatch drama – joins a queue of huddling refugees when he is forced to flee the mayhem.
Russell Beale is not a sympathetic Lear but he is a great one – full of power and pathos and fury.
Anna Maxwell Martin – recent star of BBC1’s Death Comes to Pemberley – is a chillingly-realised Regan, one who enjoys cruelty, while as her sister, Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril is another brilliant study in callous indifference. As their co-conspirator in villainy Edmund, Sam Troughton’s transformation into jackbooted fascist is terrifying.
But even the supposedly good characters do not escape Mendes’s bleak vision. Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia comes complete with a Kalashnikov strapped to her back when the final battle begins, while Brooke is shown haggard and stark naked when his Edgar ends up disguised as the Bedlam beggar Poor Tom on the blasted heath.
This is a difficult and harrowing play at the best of times. Under Mendes’ direction, it somehow just got bleaker.
King Lear is running until 25 March 2014. Box office: 020 7452 3000