The following is a review of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the National Theatre, London, starring Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendes, seen as a live cinema broadcast on May 1st, 2014
As a Shakespeare commentator, A. C. Bradley is, for understandable reasons, somewhat out of fashion these days, but I do tend to agree with him when he describes King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but not his greatest play:
When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.
I suppose there’s room for debate on the first point: is King Lear Shakespeare’s “greatest achievement”? The Henry IV plays, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, the sonnets, etc. all have claims on that score; but if one were to qualify Bradley’s assertion to “one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements”, few, I imagine, would dissent: speaking personally, I can’t think of any other work of art, in any medium, that makes on me a greater impact than this. But as for Bradley’s second point, there can surely be no quarrel at all: as a play, it is a mess. How many other plays can one think of where a character who is a major presence in the first half disappears without explanation half way through, and is never referred to again? Where another major character is given virtually no motivation at all for what can only be described as outrageous behaviour? Where important plot complications are introduced as late as the fourth act, when there is not sufficient time to resolve them satisfactorily? Where the sub-plot resembles the principal plot so closely that the climactic moment of this sub-plot has to take place off-stage so as to avoid repetition? Where there is much travel between different locations, but no indication given of how far from each other these locations are, nor how long the characters would need to travel from one to the other?
And yet, this is not because Shakespeare did not know how to write plays: even as early as The Comedy of Errors, it is obvious that he was a master of his craft, shaping and pacing unerringly even the most intricate of plots. And it is worth noting also that when Shakespeare revised the text (assuming the Folio text is a revision of the Quarto text – a reasonable assumption, I think, to make), although he did tidy up a few loose ends, there were many other loose ends (e.g. the mysterious disappearance of the Fool half way through the play) which he could very easily have sorted out, but which he chose not to. This suggests to me not merely that the rough edges don’t matter in the overall context, but, further, that Shakespeare had actually intended these rough edges to remain; that we should no more lament the seemingly unfinished nature of this play than we should the unfinished nature of so many of Michelangelo’s sculptures.
I don’t insist on that last point. Possibly a finished surface would have made this an even greater work, but, given my decades-long familiarity with the work as Shakespeare left it, I cannot imagine it any other way. But whatever the reason for the seemingly unfinished and rough-edged quality of this play, it causes no end of headaches for the director. What is an actor to make of Edgar, whose frequently bizarre behaviour seems so utterly unmotivated? What can an actor make of Edmund, for that matter – the complete villain who, for some unknown reason, decides to do some good before he dies? What can an actor make of a character so dull and two-dimensional as the Earl of Kent? Or any of the other supporting characters, who all seem – at least in comparison with the supporting characters in Shakespeare’s other mature tragedies – so desperately under-written?
This latest National Theatre production, broadcast live in cinemas last week, features at its centre an extraordinarily powerful performance from Simon Russell Beale as Lear, but otherwise, presents what seemed to me a rather lacklustre and frequently misjudged interpretation. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril, and Anna Maxwell-Martin as an increasingly psychotic Regan both impressed, but the rest of the cast seemed to do little with their characters. Admittedly, Shakespeare hadn’t given them much to work on, but I have seen more made of Gloucester and his two sons, of the Fool, and even of Kent, than was apparent here. Many of the directorial decisions (by Sam Mendes) also seemed to me doubtful. There is, in theory, no objection to playing Shakespeare in modern dress, but in this case, it meant that the heraldic formalities preceding the duel between Edgar and Edmund in the final act could no longer make sense: here, the entire duel was cut, with Edgar simply walking on stage, declaring himself, and casually assassinating Edmund. It seemed, somehow, too casual and too understated an act to serve as a resolution of what has been, till then, a major strand of the play. And it also deprived that final scene of much of its weight: thinning out the material between Lear’s great speech at the start of the scene (“No, no, no, no, come, let’s away to prison…”), and his entrance at the end with Cordelia’s body, may have seemed like a good idea: after all, who is really interested in Edgar and Edmund by this stage of the drama? But in practice, the pacing seemed all wrong, and, despite Simon Russell’s Beale’s peerless delivery of some of the most intense of all tragic lines, the impact this scene normally makes seemed somehow diminished.
One can also question the wisdom of providing an explanation for the disappearance of the Fool. Trevor Nunn’s RSC production had also accounted for this: there, we saw the Fool hanged by Cornwall’s soldiers, thus linking the disappearance to Lear’s line near the end of the play, “And my poor fool is hanged”. (In most productions, Lear refers here to Cordelia rather than to the Fool.) Here, as in Adrian Noble’s 1982 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lear kills the Fool himself in a frenzy of madness in III,vi, and the Fool’s enigmatic words – “And I’ll go to bed at noon” – become his dying words. It is certainly a shocking moment; but introducing such a moment of shocking violence at this stage diminishes the shock value of the scene that follows immediately after, in which a servant is killed, Cornwall is fatally wounded, and, most famously, Gloucester has his eyes plucked out. It is this later scene, surely, that should be the culminating point of the tempestuous third act: in this production, it did not seem so. In any case, there is surely little point served in explaining the disappearance of the Fool: we are here within a dramatic framework in which the world itself has stopped making sense: why go out of one’s way to explain something that Shakespeare, even in his revisions, did not think worth explaining?
There are several other features in this production which seemed to me misjudged. When, for instance, Lear delivered his terrible curse to Goneril (I,iv), here, Goneril reacted instinctively by slapping her father; and later, in the mock-trial scene, Lear’s allegation that Goneril had “kicked the poor king, her father” is changed to “hit the poor king, her father”. This diminishes the drama in every sense. Is it at all credible that Lear, a man accustomed all his life to unquestioned obedience, unable to control his violent temper, and already in a towering rage, would take a slap from his own daughter and let it pass? Lear’s allegation in the mock-trial scene in Act III – that Goneril had kicked him – is a wonderfully mad and surreal image, and I see nothing to be gained by ironing out this surreal madness into something that is true and reasonable. And in any case, the word “kicked”, with its concentration of plosive consonants, makes a far greater impact that the relatively weak “hit”. Shakespeare knew what he was doing: re-writes almost invariably result in diminution.
There were other things also. Edmund was presented as a corporate careerist, bespectacled, sharp-suited, and with a portfolio under his arm; Edgar, in contrast, was a layabout – casually dressed, swigging from a bottle of wine and smoking a fag*. It wasn’t clear why they were characterised thus, nor why these characterisations had to be made so blatantly obvious.
But even given all this, it is a measure of the extraordinary qualities of the work that it reduced me once again to tears. Simon Russell Beale must take the credit for this. Right from the start, he presented a man still physically powerful, but who is already descending into dementia: his mind is beginning to go, and he knows it. I have rarely seen that moment in I,v where he confronts this awareness directly for the first time (“Let me not be mad, sweet heaven”) performed with such heartbreaking poignancy. He takes care to differentiate, as all the best Lears do, between the violent but essentially childish tantrums of the first act and the deeper passion that overtakes him later in the play. His reunion with Cordelia, where, out of shame, he could hardly bring himself to look at her, really couldn’t have been done better; and his inconsolable howling over her dead body really did seem like the promised end, or an image of that horror. This was a tremendous Lear; but it needed badly a production that was better thought out, and in which the supporting cast could rise above the various directorial misjudgements, and make something out of their admittedly difficult roles.
* Whatever a “fag” may mean on the other side of the Pond, in UK, it means a cigarette.