For the second time in as many years, there is a production that has been heavily anticipated so much you can feel the cognoscenti holding their breath. Last year it was the combination of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in OTHELLO and now this year we have Simon Russell Beale as KING LEAR, directed by long-time collaborator Sam Mendes.
I felt OTHELLO was less than was expected and at times KING LEAR was a bit disappointing too but on the whole it fulfilled the expectation raised. It certainly was a huge production which opens with a huge flaming sun being slowly eclipsed and then gives us big open spaces on the Olivier stage, big statues, a big cast, torture by water-boarding - and even a big dead stag - but at times I yearned for the claustrophobic Cottesloe production from 1997 which was directed by Richard Eyre with a landmark performance by Ian Holm.
Mendes has set his production in a 20th Century totalitarian state that is ruled over by the hunched and shaven-headed Lear who calls a summit conference to ask his three daughters the famous question of which one of them loves him the most.
Interestingly this was the first production I have seen where the dual plot device was really apparent to me. Lear isn't the only one who fatally makes a wrong decision regarding his children, Gloucester also chooses to believe his bastard son Edmund's lie that his legal son Edgar is plotting to kill him, his eager belief in the lie echoes Lear's banishing of his favourite daughter Cordelia for her perceived lack of love for him. Both actions are catastrophic but, as I said this is the first production where I noticed the obvious parallel lines of the plot.
I think this is mostly down to the exceptional performance of Stephen Boxer as Gloucester, a career politician who realises too late, and at a terrible cost, his miscalculation. The performances of Sam Troughton as the venal Edmund was very good, played like a faceless Special Advisor who seizes his chance in the power vacuum. Troughton had good fun with his soliloquies where Edmund shares his delight in his machinations. Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare suggests that the same actor would have played Iago in OTHELLO and I believe this to be the case as they both share a delight in their villany, Sadly Tom Brooke's Edgar was a trifle anonymous, even with his old boy flapping about as 'Poor Tom'.
Stanley Townsend, not a performer I usually warm to, was excellent as Kent. Gruff and burly and quick to anger, yet he could touch the heart especially with his dignified final lines "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no."
Adrian Scarborough was also very good as The Fool, becoming more and more despondent as his truisms fall more an more on deaf ears. How do you solve a problem like the Fool? He vanishes halfway through the play and there is a good reason put forward in the Ackroyd book that possibly the boy actor who played Cordelia also played The Fool which explains the character's disappearance as Cordelia comes back into the action.
Mendes solves the problem the same way that Adrian Noble's 1982 production did, namely that during the trial scene Lear, in the depth of his derangement, kills the Fool in place of an imagined Goneril. Here the violent act springs from nowhere and as such, was doubly shocking.
Sadly the daughters didn't do it for me at all. Kate Fleetwood's Wallis Simpson lookalike Goneril seemed too under-charged while Anna Maxwell Martin was overly-screechy and too obvious as an over-sexed Regen. Mendes has also chopped and changed the text in areas so in this production, the sisters die on stage: Maxwell Martin poisoned and dying huddled under a table while Fleetwood cuts her own throat. It certainly moves the characters a bit more into the limelight but it all looks badly staged and not organic to the play's flow.
The good news was that I quite liked Olivia Vinall as Cordelia who showed a lot more presence than she did as Desdemona in last year's OTHELLO.
I have seen five Lears on stage and they have been inching up in ages: Michael Gambon (1983, aged 43), Richard Briars (1990, aged 56), Robert Stephens (1994, aged 63), Ian Holm (1997, aged 66) and Derek Jacobi (2010, aged 72). Simon Russell Beale drops the scale back down as he is 53 but he gives a consummate performance, maybe just missing greatness.
Playing an obviously dictatorial Lear, Beale in the first scene gives a clue to his encroaching incapacity with a trembling hand that twitches behind him, and with each subsequent downturn in his fortunes the twitch becomes more pronounced. Despite his fearful whispered "O let me not be mad" to the Fool, by the heath scene - oddly staged on a levitating ramp - he is deranged, even stripping down to a pair of baggy underpants in sympathy with the naked Poor Tom.
Beale appears in the Dover scene as an escapee from his hospital bed, wearing his hospital smock, the Fool's hat and a carrier bag of his meagre possessions. The subsequent scene where he is reunited with Cordelia was also finely played as a man slowly recovering his memory of his daughter from a fit of anger.
The final scene was beautifully played and you could hear a pin drop when he said "Thou'lt come no more / Never, never, never, never, never!" each repetition pitched differently. I am not sure why on reflection I feel he missed greatness, maybe a feeling that he missed the pathos that Ian Holm and Derek Jacobi brought to the final moments.
With this production so fresh in my mind, it was fascinating to then see ELLEN TERRY WITH EILEEN ATKINS at the new Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe's companion theatre. Built to replicate a Jacobean indoor theatre, it's tiny auditorium would feel claustrophobic if you were seeing a production the length of KING LEAR but this show's running time of 80 minutes was fine.
In 1910 the great 19th Century actress Ellen Terry was 63 and after failing as an actor/manager of her own theatre, she decided to do lecture tours on Shakespeare, especially his women. Eileen Atkins has adapted these latter ones into a one-woman show which has her become Terry to tell us her thoughts on Shakespeare, stories from her career playing his heroines and also perform speeches and scenes from them. In 1989 Eileen Atkins adapted Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN into a one-woman play with much success and she has triumphed again with Ellen Terry. I was transfixed by her.
Through her insights into the roles she played, Terry shares her unique standpoint as the person who had to bring those characters to life. She also includes Rosalind which she never got to appear in due to the fact that Henry Irving would not let her play the role at the Lyceum as there was no good role for him!
Eileen Atkins said in an interview that she would not attempt to act the scenes in Terry's style: "She was extremely clever and passionate, but we all know that acting is subject to fashion. You’re in, then you’re out. It makes me sad that even some of Laurence Olivier’s performances look old-fashioned now. So I’m pretty well Eileen Atkins when it comes to the actual parts" - and how wonderful for that as it's when Atkins plays the scenes that the true magic happens.
With no props or costumes - or even lighting cues - she became Rosalind, Portia, Mistress Page, Beatrice, Viola, Juliet, Desdemona and Emilia as well as Othello, Cordelia as well as King Lear, and finally Ophelia.
Several times, this most under-rated and astonishing actress brought tears to my eyes. Her Juliet, trembling and afraid of having to swallow the potion that will make her appear dead; her Emilia, righteous in her fury at Othello's killing of Desdemona; Portia's 'The quality of mercy' speech; Ophelia's mad scene, and most poignant of all, Cordelia and King Lear's reconciliation. Coming so soon after seeing the full production along the river, I know which one I would kill to see again.
It was an evening that will stay with me for a long time, it was living proof of that alchemy that true acting genius can achieve.