Christopher Gray attends a National Theatre performance of Shakespeare's King Lear

‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” In accordance with this sound precept, spelt out by Edgar in the closing speech of King Lear, I shall avoid adding to the dizzying encomia printed elsewhere about the National Theatre’s new Sam Mendes/Simon Russell Beale collaboration (“our greatest director and actor” — Sunday Times) and state bluntly that the production is show-offy, misguided and not especially good.

The reading of the play by Mendes, an alumnus of Magdalen College School, is wayward to the point of perversity. Take that last speech, for instance: Tom Brooke’s nerdily-spoken Edgar delivers it alone on the vast stage of the Olivier Theatre, with six corpses around him, a tally to beat Hamlet’s terminal bloodbath.

Most of them shouldn’t be there, including Sam Troughton’s (excellent) Edmund, a gleeful villain who is not allowed his last-minute act of contrition — “the good I mean to do/ Despite of mine own nature” — in sending a messenger to countermand his order to kill Lear and his youngest daughter Cordelia (Olivia Vinall).

Missing, too, are the three trumpet calls that signal Edgar’s challenge to his usurping brother, a sound as affecting in its way as the fanfare greeting the arrival of the Minister, and the triumph of right, at the end of Beethoven’s Fidelio. He merely steps forward with a dagger and fatally stabs Edmund.

The absence of swordplay and the clash of armour is the price we must pay for the updating of the play to some repressive 20th-century state. Think Russia or the Middle East, advises Mendes in a programme note, in which is also revealed his dubious contention, fully reflected in Russell Beale’s performance, that the autumnal and lyrical quality in the later stages of the play should be presented with restraint.

Russell Beale is every inch a king, rather every inch a dictator, in a gripping opening to the production in which Lear arranges — with the force of one well used to being obeyed — the division of his kingdom. Thirty sharp-uniformed soldiers stand sentinel in an impressive semi-circle behind him. They are part of a personal retinue soon to be drastically diminished through the machinations of his wicked daughters, the ‘fur and no knickers’ scrubber Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) and the hatchet-faced, Duchess of Windsor lookalike Goneril (Kate Fleetwood).

Speaking of lookalikes, it is hard to shake off the notion that Adrian Scarborough’s beautifully-spoken Fool, in his trilby and sunglasses, bears more than a passing resemblance to Van Morrison. In a sharp deviation from the King Lear we know, the maddened monarch clubs him to death in a bath as they shelter from the storm in the heathland hovel. This astonishing event triggers a rather mischievous manipulation of the text later. “And my poor fool is hang’d!” says Lear, and a look of perplexity passes over his face, before he confirms that this is not the case, with a ‘no’ borrowed from the start of the altogether unconnected line that follows.

Good things in this production are definitely Stephen Boxer’s touching presentation of the much-abused Gloucester and Stanley Townsend as the banished Kent, metamorphosing into a bluff Irishman when he assumes his disguise. Among much startling visual stuff from designer Anthony Ward (scudding clouds, thunder storms, waving wheat field as if from Oklahoma!) there is the compelling presence of a super-life-size statue of Lear in his greatness (sculptor Stephen Hicklin) that towers above the king through the very scenes in which his tenuous grasp on power is most ruthlessly stripped away.

King Lear
National Theatre
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