This week National Theatre Live presents King Lear, played by Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendez (Skyfall). It’s a simplistic yet classy production with a host of talent on display. This version is a slightly updated retelling which takes place in a period set around the early 1900′s.
Plot: For those unfamiliar the work; this is another Shakespearean tragedy. It tells the tale of a mythical Celtic king, Lear. It picks up when he’s into his old age and propositions his three daughters to profess their love for him – to which he would divide his kingdom up between them based on their respective responses. But, when it comes to his youngest and dearest daughter, Cordelia; she says nothing.
Despite her father disinheriting her, the French King, impressed by her blunt honesty, marries Cordelia. Lear’s two other daughters, Goneril and Regan, later reveal that their flattery of their father was fake as they both bear outward contempt for him, labelling him old fool.
Meanwhile Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloster, conspires to oust his half brother Edgar by turning their father against him, to thereby claim title and favour and inheritance.
With the French army encroaching (now led by Cordelia), and Lear descending into madness, Edmund conspires further to ally himself with Lear’s two older sisters with a view to taking the throne for himself.
It’s an emotional and political story, rife with betrayal, greed and deception.
With tragedies on the mind of late, it might be a benefit to take a look at this revered piece. Simon Russell Beale instils Lear with true and complex dimensions, as we witness the sad vulnerability of an old man loosing the grasp of his family and indeed his kingdom, before descending into madness altogether. Lear is a stubborn remnant of strength trying to understand his family’s betrayal, but unable to muster the strength to hold onto the handle of his own faculties in the midst of heartbreak. It may be a tragedy, complete with many deaths, mutilations (eye-gouging) and even a trial-by-combat, but there are at least some glimmers of justice like that of the embattled and estranged Edgar (played by Tom Brooke).
Special mention must be made of Edmund, played by Sam Troughton (who thrives as the conniving charlatan) – a character as Crucial to King Lear as Iago is to Othello.
[If there can be but one negative point - its that with a play like this, as an audience member, you might find it hard to initially invest in one particular character - Cordelia is seldom seen after her marriage to the French King, and King Lear himself descends into madness, so one is always taking the outside observer's perspective and left to just appreciate the performances on offer. But perhaps that's something to take up with William Shakespeare himself]
As a rule of thumb, any play of Shakespeare put on by Britain’s finest thespians, is a timeless must-see for anyone who revels in pure acting talent.
Bear in mind that if you intend to give it a look see, it will take up a fair portion of your time – intermission is only at the two hour mark! And if you find yourself in the section of crowd often unable to decipher the old Shakespearean English, then fear not, National Theatre Live were courteous enough to provide subtitles.
Bookings at Cinema Nouveau.