“King Lear” at the National Theatre

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

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

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.


8 responses to this post.

  1. I agree it’s profoundly flawed as a play, but I don’t see anything to suggest that’s intentional (and in fact I don’t think it’s important whether it’s intentional or not).

    If though it is flawed as a play, in what sense does it remain a great achievement?

    It’s all very well grouping it with the Divine Comedy, but that’s assertion, not argument. I could group it with Eastenders in my mind, or Of Mice and Men but that wouldn’t actually tell us anything except possibly that these are all things I like or dislike.

    Does Bradley bolster this assertion? Shakespeare is a great playwright. For me his greatest achievement almost by definition cannot be one of his more structurally flawed plays. It seems weak to simply put it in a list of great things and give it glory by unargued association.


    • I agree with you that it doesn’t matter whether or not the “seeming “flaws” are intentional. (In any case, if they are, indeed, intentional, we should not regard them as “flaws” in the first place: I do find it interesting that directorial attempts to smooth out some of these flaws never quite seem to work.) And in theory, certainly, I also agree that a play cannot be granted a “great achievement” if it is poor as a play. And yet, in practice, the paradox remains: a work that we can clearly see is flawed, where we can even point out the flaws one by one, nonetheless makes, even on repeated readings or viewings, an overwhelming impact. I do not know how this paradox can be resolved.

      The bit I quoted from Bradley occurs at the beginning of the first of his two essays on King Lear in Shakespearean Tragedy. He goes on to say much about the play in these two essays, but it is fair to say, perhaps, that Bradley’s approach, based primarily on analysis of character, does not reveal much about this particular play. And many readers, like yourself, have reacted against what appears to be gushing on Bradley’s part.

      But nonetheless, I do have some sympathy with Bradley. One approach to literary criticism is to identify and analyse its good features and its bad, and, based on this analysis, declare whether or not the work in question is a Success, a Failure, or a Curate’s Egg. But there does seem to me another valid approach to literary criticism, and this is to consider first of all the impact the work makes on oneself, and then try to discover what it is in that work that makes such an impact. This latter, I think, is Bradley’s approach when it comes to King Lear: it made upon him – and it makes upon me – the sort of impact that only the very greatest of works can make. And yet, it is full of identifiable dramatic flaws. How this discrepancy can be resolved is, as I say, frankly beyond me.


  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 13, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    It is my personal favorite.

    I must reread it soon. When I do I will pay particular attention to the “rough edges” which admittedly I have had not devoted enough thought to.

    I agree with you as I too think that they are intentional. They kind of fit with the off balance and wrongness that is inherent in the Universe of the play.


    • Yes, I tend to agree. At the risk of appearing a hopeless Bardolator, these things can only really be counted as flaws only in works by lesser mortals. In the context of a work such as this, they don’t count as “flaws” at all.

      My conjecture is that when Shakespeare came to revising his early drafts, he realised that these “flaws” didn’t need correcting., that the work was better with them all in. This is why attempts by directors to “correct” these “shortcomings” – e.g. to explain why the Fool disappears – never seem to work.

      They kind of fit with the off balance and wrongness that is inherent in the Universe of the play.

      Yes – we get an immense picture of a world that has stopped making sense. At times, language itself seems to collapse (“do de do de do de”, “suum”, etc.). Even time cannot hold together (the Fool steps out of the timeframe of the drama to prophesy that a prophesy will be made after his time). The effect really is quite extraordinary, and unlike anything i have encountered i any other work.


  3. I have my doubts that the sort of unity we expect in a play is the sort of unity Shakespeare expected. I doubt Shakespeare (or his audiences) thought of “Lear” as flawed at all. Shakespeare’s art was always to present ideas in dramatized form, not to present dramas filled with ideas. Lear–the character–is the point of “Lear” the play. He, Lear, is a towering achievement. The play which surrounds him is almost secondary, almost unimportant, just stuff for Lear to lean against, walk around, react to.

    It’s also true that the endings of Shakespeare’s plays are usually confused, talky and too long. I believe that Shakespeare’s middles are his best bits, and that he wrote the plays because he was interested in what he could do there in the middle, and that he almost always lost interest in the play-as-a-play before he got to Act V, and just wrapped things up, marrying people off and killing the rest because the play has to end somewhere. This is in no way a “flaw.” No great work of art is perfect, no perfect work of art is great, etc.


    • Hello Scott, sorry for the delay in replying to you, but on reading your comment, I felt I had better think things out before rushing to an answer. And then, as ever, other things got in the way…

      The more I think about this, the less happy I am with my use of the term “flaw”. from comparing the two texts, it seems Shakespeare re-wrote the text: in other words, he had the opportunity to correct these “flaws”. And he didn’t – not even the ones it would have been quite simple to correct. These “flaws”, as we may like to call them, are shortcomings if this play were to be judged by standards we usually apply to dramas; but before we apply them here, we must consider whether it is reasonable to judge a work such as this by those standards.

      I know this may seem like blind idolatry, but I increasingly feel that the mature Shakespeare didn’t make mistakes. There are many times when I think to myself “This can’t be right!” I really don’t get Cymbeline, for instance; and Coriolanus seems to me a very odd play. But in all such cases, the balance of probability is in favour of my not having caught up yet with Shakespeare’s thinking, rather than my spotting where the old boy went wrong. This is idolatry, I know, but not, hopefully, blind idolatry!


  4. Posted by Alan on May 25, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Having just seen this production at the National I went back to your review to see how your thoughts compared with mine. As always you’ve written a fascinating and intelligently reasoned response. I may not agree with all of it (and I certainly don’t have anywhere near the knowledge and prior experience of the play or the text that you have), but I certainly concur that Simon Russell-Beale’s performance is staggeringly good. The onset of madness, the storm scene, the Wheel of Fire speech, the scene with the blinded Gloucester and Edgar (and a tabloid newspaper, of which such witty use is made) – I could go on and on, so many moments that linger in the mind. He captures the rage and the fear in the King so beautifully, that I went back to another production (Jonathan Miller’s 1982 BBC production) to compare, only to find Michael Hordern’s (an actor I much admire) interpretation somewhat aneamic in comparison. The torture scene is I think a very difficult one to stage well; there is the danger that all this eye gouging will seem rather risible (as indeed, is Goneril’s self-inflicted throat slashing towards the end of this production, in one of those pile-ups of corpses that can unwittingly induce mirth in the disrespectful spectator), and I didn’t think this production entirely escaped that. However what was well played was the disturbing sense of sexual excitement between Regan (the always excellent Anna Maxwell-Martin) and her husband that made we wonder whether Sam Mendes had seen David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (or Lynch had Lear in mind when he shot his scene, which he later decided to cut back after so many audience walkouts). I found Gloucester and Kent interesting well-rounded characters in their performances here (and Edmund no more flimsily motivated than Iago), and the death scene of the Fool a disturbing addition to the text that illustrated the psychotic aspect of Lear’s madness.


    • Sorry about the delay in responding, but, as you know, I was fighting Gove Wars elsewhere… 🙂

      When I first saw the BBC King Lear with Michael Hordern, I too felt it was underpowered, but on a recent reviewing (see here) I changed my mind radically: it is Miller’s vision of the work that Lear is a very ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events; and that when all the pomp and circumstance of royalty are stripped away, all we see is indeed just a frail, old, and very ordinary man. It is not an orthodox reading of Lear, but I do think it works well on its own terms.

      The torture scene can make an electrifying effect if staged well. The entire third act (i.e. the storm scenes) needs to build up to this. I remember the staging in the Deborah Warner staging at the NT back in 1990: this torture scene really made me feel sick in the pit of the stomach, despite knowing what to expect. It didn’t work so well here, partly, I think, because we have already witnessed a scene of sickening violence in the previous scene (the killing of the Fool): repeated explicit violence soon leads to diminishing returns.

      In the text, the deaths of Goneril and of Regan occur offstage, and I did wonder what was gained by bringing them onstage.

      Edmund’s motivation is actually very simple, I think: he wanted to oust his legitimate half-brother from his inheritance. He is motivated purely by desire for wealth and status. The problem is that, unlike Iago (whose motivations I’d say are complex and elusive rather than flimsy), it is difficult for the actor to give this essentially simple character much dramatic weight. Once again, I have to go back to the 1990 NT production, where Edmund, played by Hakim Kee-Kazim, was presented as a man burning with hatred and resentment for the injustices and indignities he has had to endure on account of being illegitimate.

      Regan and Goneril, I agree, were well done here. Kent is a difficult character to bring off: the best I’ve seen was Ian McKellen, who actually managed to get laughs in the scene where he abuses Oswald (I think it’s always a good idea in the tragedies to get laughs whenever you can!)

      The best Lears I’ve seen on stage, both in terms of the central performance and in terms of the production, have been Brian Cox (NT, 1990); John Wood (RSC, 1991); and Timothy West in an English Touring Theatre production some ten or so years ago. (It was seeing this same Timothy West as Lear in in earlier production back in ’71, when I was 11, that turned me into a Shakespeare nut.) And I’d strongly recommend an audio version of from the 1960s with Paul Scofield on the Harper-Collins label (it’s available to download from various sources): it is quite elemental in its raw power. Scofield re-recorded the part in his 80s on the Naxos label, but I haven’t heard that, and don’t know what it’s like: the earlier version, though, is extraordinary.


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