Review Roundup: KING LEAR at the National Theater

Review Roundup: KING LEAR at the National Theater

Sam Mendes's production of "King Lear" opened at the National Theater last week, with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. Let's see what the critics had to say:

Ben Brantly of the NY Times says: There's no denying that Mr. Mendes and Mr. Beale show plenty of guts in pursuing the interpretation they set forth so boldly. Lear, the self-destructing creator of the most ill-conceived retirement plan in world literature, is hardly a likable man to begin with. He's arrogant, shortsighted, quick tempered and cruel to those who love him best... Still, when, in Act III, a humbled Lear declaims that he is a man "more sinned against than sinning," we're usually willing to agree, at least partly. When Mr. Beale yells those words, you may find yourself thinking, "Oh, really, Attila?"

Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times says: Mendes' cast is uniformly top-flight, but for the most part they are unsurprising in their performances. Sam Troughton's Edmund is serpentine, even a little prissy; Edgar is cast against type as an initially feckless young man, but Tom Brooke is not playing against type in this characterisation. Kate Fleetwood is adroit at being icy as Goneril, and Anna Maxwell Martin as second daughter Regan plays the calculating vamp from her very first lines. Adrian Scarborough is deferentially tentative as the Fool offering his barbed criticism to this dictatorial Lear. However, Mendes comes up with a shocking idea to explain the character's disappearance halfway through the play.

Charles Spencer of the Telegraph says: This new Lear however with a punishing running time of three and a half hours doesn't strike me as one of their greatest achivements. There is much to admire but also moments that seem overblown and at times downright perverse....The action is all set in a present day totalitarian state. Lear is an old tyrant, surrounded by a huge armed guard - there are some forty supernumaries - and the opening scene in which he asks which of his three daughters loves him most is a great state occasion, and, as is so often the way with dictators - a chance for Lear to massage his ego. Hence his fury when it all goes wrong when Cordelia bravely refuses to tow the party line and instead speaks truth to power.

Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard writes: Sam Mendes's modern-dress production locates the action in a totalitarian setting akin to North Korea. The production's epic scale emphasises that this is a drama about politics as well as a portrait of a disintegrating family. Yet the political slant doesn't stop the collapsing relationships and morbid psychology being realised with piercing authenticity....The quality of the support is superb. As Lear's eldest daughter Goneril, Kate Fleetwood is icily severe. As her more artful sister Regan, Anna Maxwell Martin is feline and provocative, and Olivia Vinall is affecting as Cordelia, the youngest of the three.

James Woodall of the artsdesk writes: Beale is a most technical actor. His king limps and stoops, and can get very physical, as when he overturns two tables after Cordelia's refusal to brown-nose. (Beale has said that in rehearsal this caused him to tear a bicep, which, bandaged, works well later when he's lost the plot and is wearing less.) He's brilliant with fleeting, apparently throwaway gestures: wriggling fingers to suggest encroaching brainlessness; scratching an ear; bringing out a bottle of pills to medicate his fury at Kent's enchainment.

Michael Coveney of writes: Because of the scale and space in the Olivier, you really do feel that everyone is on a journey in this play, and these are plotted by director Sam Mendes with elegant, intelligent precision: Anna Maxwell Martin's Regan goes from girlish sycophancy (earning a smack on her bottom from dad) to gruesome sadist in the terrifying blinding of Gloucester, to fur-clad power-drunk adulterer.

Paul Taylor of the Independent writes: Staged in the vast Olivier, it's a powerfully searching account of the tragedy that fuses the familial and the cosmic, the epic and the intimate, and ponders every detail of the play with a fresh, imaginative rigour... Mendes has set the piece in a present day totalitarian state. Russell Beale's Lear is an old Stalinesque despot, surrounded by a huge armed guard, and the love-test of his daughters is a chilling public ceremony, with microphones, designed to prop up his ego before he delegates power.

Michael Billington of the Guardian writes: It starts impressively. Lear's division of his kingdom is not some idle whim but a huge public ceremony executed by a man who looks very much a military dictator. A vast crowd of extras line the room which only adds to Lear's sense of outrage at the thwarting of his will by the disobliging Cordelia. As if to emphasise his fury, Russell Beale's bullet-headed Lear humiliates Cordelia by forcing her to stand on a chair like a naughty schoolgirl before she is rescued by the French king. Yet although the scene has an epic quality, it is filled with human detail. Adrian Scarborough's Fool, who squats downstage on the Japanese-style hanamichi (or runway) that extends into the stalls, rushes up to lovingly embrace Cordelia before she is bundled off.

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