King Lear – Great production, but not my favourite Shakespeare play …

learLast night I went to see the live screening of Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear beamed live from the National Theatre to a cinema near you – Didcot in my case.

The production was wonderful. Simon Russell Beale played Lear as a sort of military dictator displaying the onset of Lewy Body Dementia – a particular type of dementia that fits Lear’s changing moods and confusion perfectly, and he added other symptoms of a hunched posture, shuffling gait etc. in too. (This was explained in the interval talk, something the cinema goers get instead of the rush to get a G&T at the bar).

Beale is quite my favourite actor on stage. Over the years I’ve seen him in so many productions – from Jonson’s Volpone to Chekov’s Seagull and as an unusual Ariel in The Tempest – all for the National or RSC.  One production I particularly remembered last night was Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the NT in which his partner was Adrian Scarborough – who plays the Fool in Lear.  They obviously had a great chemistry, so it was a real shock when a mad Lear turned from acting a clown to bludgeon the Fool to death.

Simon Russell Beale as King LearThe daughters were all wonderful. Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan was postively psychotic and Kate Fleetwood as Goneril was scheming and manipulative.  Sam Troughton (keeping the Troughton acting dynasty going) as Edmund was all flashing eyes and totally self-centred. Gloucester’s torture by Regan and Cornwall was stomach-churning as he had his eyes gouged out with a corkscrew in his own wine-cellar.  In fact all of the acting was first class, and was topped off by the huge cast of extras representing Lear’s hundred knights.

It was my third Lear (fourth if you include Ian Holm’s one on the TV) – I first saw it at The Old Vic directed by Jonathan Miller back in 1989 with Eric Porter as Lear and Gemma Jones and Frances de la Tour as Goneril and Regan. Next I saw Adrian Noble’s triumphant production at the RSC in 1993 which won huge plaudits for its star Robert Stephens (and when I looked it up, I found that a younger S R Beale played the virtually unplayable Edgar).

It was wonderful theatre, but every time I see Lear I realise that it is not my favourite Shakespeare play at all. (Much Ado about Nothing and Hamlet get my vote for that). How could Gloucester fall for Edmund’s lies?  Why doesn’t Edgar reveal himself to his father in the forest?  All the little linky scenes with messengers bringing messages or being intercepted with messages irritate me, and why do we never hear what happened to the mothers? – of the three daughters and Gloucester’s sons.

As always, the cameras caught the action wonderfully.  It is an added bonus to get the close-ups of the actors’ faces.  I love these cinema screenings, they’re affordable, and with the interval you can pop out and get an ice-cream if you wish, and the audience will always be quiet and appreciative – although there were too many distracting latecomers last night for my liking! Harumph!

There will be encore screenings of King Lear later in the month. Visit NT Live to find out details.

What is your relationship with King Lear?
Which is your favourite Shakespeare tragedy?
Do you go to these live screenings?



17 thoughts on “King Lear – Great production, but not my favourite Shakespeare play …

  1. Love the sound of these live plays – I haven’t been to one for years. Used to go to the NT in London in the years before children….. The Scottish Play has always been my favourite (but then I am Scottish!)

    • I’ve been spoiled by seeing Ken Branagh’s Hamlet on stage. It was transformative for me in my relationship with Shakespeare, the verse speaking was so natural and I felt as if I understood everything for the first time ever.

      • Yes! That’s exactly it – the best performances of Shakespeare bring the language to live and are so important to understanding. I think all school pupils should have to watch Shakespeare before trying to read him. You’ve very lucky to have seen Branagh’s Hamlet, though!

  2. King Lear is totally my favourite tragedy, and I’d say my favourite Shakespeare play too. I’ve never asked the questions you ask yourself here — too busy crying, I expect. I’ll never forget trying to tell my teenage daughter the story of the play, sitting on a beach on a Greek island, and being unable to continue because I started sobbing. I’d love to see one of these screenings but I don’t think they make it to France. Lucky you!

  3. Lear was never a favorite of mine until I actually saw it, which I did a few years ago at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. It was a remarkable production, with Stacy Keach as Lear and two of my favorite local actors as Gloucester and the Fool. It was set in modern-day Eastern Europe and was raw and brutal in a way that I never sensed when reading it. It apparently divided critics, but I adored it. It was one of the rare plays that I wanted to go see again. I’m almost afraid to see Lear again because I fear that another production wouldn’t live up to that one, but the NT Live version is showing in DC this summer–at the same theatre where I saw Keach’s Lear–so I may go. I’ve seen their Frankenstein, Macbeth, and The Audience and enjoyed them all, but I still prefer live theatre. The National actually brought Helen Mirren’s Phedre to DC, so I got to see that one in person, which was a thrill.

    • I agree that live theatre in the theatre is better than live theatre in the cinema, although if I couldn’t afford really good seats, I’d almost prefer the cinema for the close-ups.

      I’m booked up for Monty Python’s final show and Medea (with Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy)) in September – both in the cinema, but am going to a real theatre to see ‘Morecambe’ – a show based on the life of UK comedian Eric Morecambe which is meant to be brilliant in June, plus proms in August I hope.

  4. I will definitely go to see King Lear in a theatre when and if I get a chance. I recently saw a production of Othello at the Guthrie here in Minneapolis, but my all-time favorite is Hamlet. It is hard to beat Hamlet. I would love to see someone make a movie of Henry IV, because Falstaff is such a great comic character.

    • Funny that you should mention Henry IV. The theatre where I saw King Lear is currently showing the Henry plays, with Stacy Keach as Falstaff. I hadn’t seen or read either play, and they were great.

      PBS recently showed a miniseries of the Henry IV plays, along with Richard II and Henry IV. It was called The Hollow Crown and had Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston and a bunch of other great actors. I haven’t seen it but heard it was great and plan to get it from Netflix at some point.

  5. My first Lear was also Eric Porter, but a much younger version back in 1968 when he had just become really well known as Soames Forsyte (although, of course, he had been playing leading roles for the RSC for some time). I am going to see this production in a couple of weeks time at a showing that starts at 9.30 in the morning. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be witnessing the blinding of Gloucester that close to breakfast.

  6. I’m hoping to get out to see King Lear when it broadcasts into one of the cinemas near me, and it’ll be my first time seeing or reading it. I don’t expect it to be my favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies, but I’m looking forward to it anyway.

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