Leaving aside Kurosawa’s Japanese epic “Ran” and “A Thousand Acres,” the 1997 adaptation of novelist Jane Smiley’s relocation of Shakespeare to Iowa, there hasn’t been a successful screen version of “King Lear.” But the epic scale, and near permanent soundtrack, of Sam Mendes’ much feted but strenuous new National Theater production suggests the helmer is thinking in filmic terms. To borrow a phrase from another Shakespeare tragedy, it is “full of sound and fury” but signifies little but recognition of the efforts of the cast and crew, led by a straining Simon Russell Beale.
The sight, not long into the first half, of designer Anthony Ward’s vast statue of Lear atop a five-foot-high plinth nails down the Shakespeare-in-suits production’s desire to be seen as monumental. That’s been clear from the defining opening interrogation by Lear of his three daughters, which takes place with public address microphones and conference tables on the wide-open Olivier stage edged by 28 stony-faced soldiers. Out goes any suggestion of theatrical metaphor — family drama as a microcosm of the nation — and in comes literal, cinematic representation.
On the plus side, this moves the production towards the explanatory. Scenes are clearly placed with an abundance of furniture and props. Furthermore, the production indulges in an increasing battery of special effects — visible lightning flashes, haze, smoke, aircraft sounds. And when, early on, Goneril (spike-heeled Kate Fleetwood, dressed like Wallis Simpson) complains of “the rank and not-to-be-endured riots” of Lear’s “knights and squires,” audiences can sympathize since Mendes has already brought on Lear’s huge retinue of lusty soldiers hurling themselves across another giant table, drinking and singing as they go.
The downside is that there’s little to activate audiences’ imaginations. Also, all these locations require setting up, mostly via the theater’s giant turntable. For the transitions, scudding clouds are projected across the sets with added doomy music, but there’s no disguising repeated sags in tension. And against the soundtrack of looming storm effects and strife, the actors push too hard to up the energy levels. This results in far too much shouting in a play that needs focused speaking in order to communicate fully the intricacies of its plot and ideas.
Bizarrely, the chief culprit is Russell Beale. One of Britain’s most beloved thesps who is barely ever not working on stage, he is questionable casting as Lear since he is just 53. Although he’s clearly old enough to have fathered three grown-up daughters, the effort to transform his energized self into a man towards the end of both his life and his tether is all too visible. Surrounded by a conspicuously tall cast, he keeps his head sunk into his shoulders and adopts an oddly Richard III-like physicality of a slight limp and a favoring of one side of his body. Thus, for much of the evening, we witness the actor’s impressive method rather than his character’s trajectory, which robs Lear of necessary pathos.
Knowing that in a drama sparked by rash, heedless behavior his trademark legible thought processes won’t do him any favors, Russell Beale goes to the opposite extreme of rage. But his vocal strain lessens his authority and even in the storm he lacks elemental power, not least because Mendes employs set hydraulics when it should be the actor lifting the scene.
Even the usually calm Stanley Townsend is encouraged towards an unusually bellicose Kent and Anna Maxwell Martin’s over-illustrated Regan loses vocal control so much in the blinding scene that she suddenly appears to be from a different class.
The man “more sinned against than sinning” always does win sympathy at his tragic conclusion when he re-meets Cordelia (Olivia Vinall). But when Tom Brooke’s acute and extremely affecting Edgar speaks of his heart breaking at the sight of the ruined man, it’s hard to banish the thought that it’s a view that works more in theory than in the preceding playing.
The combination of Mendes and Russell Beale has ensured an SRO run for the play’s initial booking period and should guarantee a big audience for the worldwide NT Live cinema screenings May 1. But when Edgar’s relationship with his father Gloucester (patient Stephen Boxer) quietly tears at audience’s hearts more than the plight of Lear’s descent into madness, you know a production is off-center.