Sam Mendes's King Lear is a must-see for masochists

Sprawling, baffling and unwieldy, the play punishes everyone who gets involved with it: actors, directors and play-goers

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

King Lear

Olivier, in rep until 28 May

What the Women Did

Southwark Playhouse, until 15 February

Directors appear to have two design options when approaching a Shakespeare tragedy. Woodstock or jackboot. Woodstock means papal robes, shoulder-length hair and silver Excaliburs gleaming from jewelled belts. Jackboot means pistols, berets, holsters and submachine-guns. Sam Mendes sticks the jackboot into King Lear in an attempt to find ‘a modern understanding of the story’, as he puts it.

What this ‘modern understanding’ reveals is that Shakespeare’s opening scene allows the dramatic focus to move between the personal and the political with invisible fluency. Mendes destroys this asset by laying on a televised show trial. Lear’s daughters, surrounded by scowling commandos, are arraigned at miked-up tables as if accused of treason. The intimidating atmosphere leaves no room for the weird intimacy and hypocrisy of the family drama to unfold. When Cordelia’s speech infuriates Lear, he overturns two of the chunkiest tables (rather too easily for a man of 80), and the crash-bang-wallop of flying furniture kills the great line, ‘Come not between the dragon and his wrath!’

This production enjoys experiments. In the storm scene (thundery but rainless), Lear perches on the brink of a hand-cranked diving board that soars 20 feet into the air while he hammers out his lines. Not a great idea. Lear’s gang of irregulars, all dressed like Action Man, are a pest. They laugh uproariously at everything the Fool says, and their guffaws, rattled out like clockwork, always start and end in unison. The Fool’s utterances may be ribald, cheeky and perceptive but they aren’t wisecracks. Not to today’s audience, anyway, and to pretend otherwise is to generate confusion.

Mendes is often tempted to use the over-large Olivier to showcase his high-concept ideas. But he’s also aware that it works better with a second enclosure within its vast spaces. In the eye-gouging scene, he creates an underground wine cellar, where Gloucester is mutilated with a corkscrew. This is the show’s finest moment: novel, artful and brimful of potency and horror. The only jarring note is Cornwall’s underpowered stabbing: Michael Nardone, looking like a yuppie at a business lunch, glances down at his stained shirt as if politely noting a soup spillage made by a clumsy busboy. Of the other blunders, the most notable is the decision to force Lear to club the Fool to death in a bath. This is revolting and unwarranted by the text.

There are outstanding performances here from Anna Maxwell Martin, whose Regan is a hysterical sex freak turned on by torture, and from Kate Fleetwood, whose slinky ice-cold Goneril glides around like Wallis Simpson looking for a playboy to chew up and spit out. Simon Russell Beale must be the cuddliest Lear ever. His navy-blue tunic, belted at the waist, is a reminder that dictators’ costumes are sometimes indistinguishable from ticket collectors’. He wears a huge snowy white beard, which, combined with his shaven skull, makes him look comically short. Is this really a fading warlord on the brink of insanity? Or is it Big Ears parachuted into North Korea to serve as this week’s guest dictator? Russell Beale is better in the second half playing the wise, mellow, broken Lear. And I’m glad to report that he’s being kept in excellent trim. Mendes makes him carry the dead Cordelia all the way across the Olivier helipad and then dump her on a table. After this he hoists her up (again!) and twirls her round a couple of times before lowering her to the ground. By the end of the run he’ll be caber-tossing her into the circle. This is a sprawling, baffling and unwieldy tragedy and it invariably punishes everyone who gets involved with it: actors, directors and play-goers. At nearly four hours long, this version is a must-see for masochists.

Southwark Playhouse has a new show with a misleading title. What the Women Did sounds like retro-feminist propaganda about exploited bomb-makers during the Great War. In fact, it’s a trio of dramas written at the time for audiences at home. The Old Lady Shows her Medals, by J.M. Barrie, is a soppy Oedipal romance between a twee Scots granny and a Black Watch soldier she decides to adopt. Herbert Tremaine’s Handmaidens of Death is far better. At midnight a squadron of mysterious foreign soldiers start to flirt with a handful of jingoistic Englishwomen. The soldiers’ identity comes as an astonishing dramatic shock.

The best of the three is Luck of War, by Gwen John, which opens with a pregnant war widow preparing to marry her new boyfriend. The door bursts open and in limps her husband with a mangled leg. He was missing, presumed dead. Now he’s present and hopping mad. This sort of tragiccomic entanglement was no doubt commonplace during the war. The play is funny, moving and well acted, and it richly deserves this revival.

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