See Better, Lear

This post contains spoilers. King Lear is still playing at the National Theatre and is to be broadcast live in cinemas in May so it might be worth skipping this post if you intend to see the production (perhaps returning here once you’ve seen it?) I’ll try and watch one of the live screenings myself and I’ll be interested to see how the elaborate, revolving set is captured by the eye of the film cameras. For now, though, I want to share a few thoughts about the production, one of which will involve discussion of something which might be deemed a spoiler. As they say when revealing the football results on the news before Match of the Day: if you don’t want to see the scores, look away now.

I’ll start with the spoiler, which was thoughtlessly revealed by Michael Billington in his Guardian review. The mad King Lear (Simon Russell Beale), having played out the trial scene in what is apparently a bathroom, bludgeons the Fool (Adrian Scarborough) to death in a bathtub. It’s an interesting and potentially powerful moment, in which Lear’s extraordinary anger, misdirected, destroys his beloved truth-telling servant. It makes some sense to kill the Fool: he disappears from the play after this moment and performers have often tried to explain his absence, by having him die, or by suggesting he is near death. I’d be interested to see this scene again but it seemed to me curiously underwhelming. I say the Fool was bludgeoned, but, in truth, he was merely given a couple of whacks; the beating isn’t extreme enough to make it entirely clear that he’s dead and this is compounded by the fact that he speaks his final line ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ from within the bathtub (if he’s alive at this point, when exactly does he die?) and by the slightly odd reactions of the other characters. There are definitely gestures and facial expressions which indicate that the Fool has been badly beaten, but the reactions suggest mild disgust rather than horror. Now, this might be another area in which sightlines can have a drastic effect on the way scenes are received (and how appropriate to talk of sightlines in a play as obsessed with seeing as King Lear). I imagine that those sitting centrally, or higher up, will have had completely different access to the scene (and I’ll be interested, then, to see how it appears in the cinema) but I suspect that the moment has been botched a little. It wouldn’t have been hard to have given the scene more punch and clarity, at least for those who can’t see the Fool’s face.

It may be that my response to this was, at least partly, the result of seating arrangements, but I detected an anticlimactic element to Edgar’s story arch as well. However, while I was a little bemused by the death of the Fool, I was persuaded by the portrayal of Edgar (Tom Brooke). Towards the end of both the quarto and Folio texts, Edgar, heralded by trumpets, enters, armed, to challenge Edmund; a fight ensues and he wins out. In Mendes’ production, this entire scene was stripped back. Instead of a fight, Edgar simply knifed Edmund (Sam Troughton). Justified as it may be, this was not an act of valiance. Edgar, first appearing in the production with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was presented as a dissolute figure, but if one might have expected, from here, a Hal-like journey towards military success and future rule, this expectation was thwarted. There’s no sense that he can, or, indeed, wants to rule ‘the gored state’, as Albany suggests. As in the Folio text, Edgar speaks the final lines, but unlike in the Folio, he does so alone, with only the dead for company. There is no dead march; the bodies are not carried from the stage. As well as showing the poverty of unaccommodated man, King Lear shows the majesty, the ceremony, of tragedy; in the end this production, usefully, I thought, deflated some of those majestic elements.


A fuller review will appear in Cahiers Élisabéthains.

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