Sam Mendes’ modern-militaristic revival of King Lear has been anticipated as one of the theatrical events of the year, if not the decade. Simon Russell Beale is so routinely lauded as the finest stage actor of his generation; now, more than a decade after his coruscating Hamlet on the same stage, he tackles the other great Shakespearean peak. And although he reaches the summit with his usual skill, the view is simply not as spectacular on this occasion.
The black uniforms may be reminiscent of the ones used in the 1990 Richard Eyre/Ian McKellen production of Richard III, but this is less a fascist state than a Prussian one, with impressive statuary and rigid codes of conduct; consequently, Cordelia’s refusal to play Lear’s game of flattery in the opening scene (“Tell me, my daughters … Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”) is a public act as well as a familial one. In this scene, as in the later revelry at eldest daughter Goneril’s place, the by-now-retired Lear’s retinue of a hundred knights feels quite real (in fact, there are 30-odd supernumeraries onstage). As the evening goes on, the sense of personal wisdom gained even as the nation around these figures crumbles is palpable.
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.
Even the superb Beale in the title role does not transcend this sense of reliability for more than moments at a time. He largely steers clear of bellowing, relying instead on pathos, as in his whispered “Oh, reason not the need” and his admirable damping down of self-congratulatory audience laughter at the empty threat “I will do such things – / What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!” Conversely, he surprises us on his final-act reunion with Cordelia, and halting return to sanity, by playing it angry rather than bewildered. And he takes full part in Mendes’ skilful cutting and tweaking of the final sequence to give the action a more natural flow than the standard hybrid form of the text offers. But the thrill of a landmark production remains elusive.
It no doubt seems perverse to mark a production down for being merely very good, but for actor and director alike, “very good” is indeed a “merely” level of achievement.