Yet another collaboration between Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale and this time, it’s King Lear. Set in modern day with chauffeur driven cars, fighter jets and details such an intravenous catheter taped onto a patient’s hand. The staging is stark and sparse with CGI dark cloud projected onto the flats accompanied by dramatic string music at scene changes, setting the dark mood of the play. The longer first half is dramatically more powerful with directed with much momentum to drive the story forward. Lear’s speech in the storm is a particularly stirring scene and a great use of the mechanical stage. After the interval, as the drama of the play relaxes, so does the impetus and becomes a little ponderous as it gently strolls towards the inevitable tragic end.
Simon Russell Beale begins his Lear with his head thrusts forward, getting into everyone’s faces like a strutting cock. As his power wanes and health deteriorates, he shrinks and relaxes into being more human and sympathetic. But by little gesture such as a persistent scratching of his right thigh, it gives away a subconscious nervousness about the loss of power and his unease with himself. It is not a showy Lear but it is to be expected from Simon Russell Beale. A stand-out performance is Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan whose wild child of the rich act mirrors those in the modern society well. The modern staging also brings up issues such as waterboarding and modern dictatorship and generally integrates effectively with the text. Despite the tragedy unfolding, it is an extremely enjoyable three and a half hour of Shakespeare.