Simon Russell-Beale is relatively young to be tackling Shakespeare’s tragic elder statesman, but Sam Mendes, who has directed this wonderful actor in, amongst others, Othello, Richard III and Uncle Vanya, has no problem with this. And quite rightly so. With his thick white beard, Number One haircut and stooping, shuffling gait we have no problem in believing his advancing years. Added to this is, of course, is Beale’s superlative acting ability which allows his Lear to transform from a Stalin like bully into a demented and very troubled soul.
As befits a director whose last couple of jobs have been directing Skyfall and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sam Mendes has produced an epic modern production here at The Olivier and I guess it was on the cards that this would be so. I have no problem with this and the opening scene with Lear and his huge armed guard all clad in sinister black commanding the entire Olivier stage (no mean feat) promises much. With his back to the audience and microphone to hand, Lear, on addressing his three daughters, shows us that we’re watching an unbending tyrant of a father. It is a formidable environment and we can begin to understand why Goneril and Regan are not the doting daughters he expects them to be. When his fury is unleashed at Cordelia’s refusal to go down the road of massaging her father’s ego by telling him how much she loves him, we know we’re dealing with an unrelenting and dangerous man. But even dangerous men can suffer the indignities of dementia and Beale being the great actor he is, makes this change believably and brilliantly.
One of the other positives about this full-on, three-and-a-half hours is that there is no ‘dead wood’ casting wise. Each and every cast member is excellent. Anna Maxwell-Martin playing against type makes a sexy, Regan, who gets her kicks from brutality, whilst her older sister, Goneril is played by an equally ruthless and scarey Kate Fleetwood but without the sexual overtones. Stanley Townsend is a splendidly gruff and irrepressible Earl of Kent and Stephen Boxer makes a fine, gentlemanly Gloucester, especially after he loses his sight. His eye gouging is so realistic that there isn’t anyone in the audience who doesn’t gasp in horror. Meanwhile the always excellent Tom Brooke doesn’t disappoint. His Edgar spends much of his time naked apart from a piece of sacking covering his modesty and gives a superb portrayal of feigning madness.
One of the extraordinary takes on Shakespeare’s text is when Lear, in his demented haze, batters his beloved Fool (the wonderful Adrian Scarborough) to death in an old bath. It elicits an audible gasp from the audience and a marked change in mood. Strangely it does work, unlike the row of umbrella wielding mourners at The Duke of Cornwall’s funeral who flip them open in unison, close them likewise and then file off stage in line. Have we strayed into a musical?
This is a minor quibble, as for the most part, this is a splendid production and there was no fidgeting in my seat and looking at my watch. I was gripped from start to finish and Lear’s final moments, dressed in a hospital gown and mourning for his beloved Cordelia are exquisite.
Simon and Sam really are a force to be reckoned with.