We are in a crumbling modern gerontocracy: a conference chamber lined with soldiers, Lear white-bearded and gratingly impatient in dictator militaria, bemedalled grandees. The daughters line up by microphones for the formal delegation of power and statement of adoration. It is an old man’s world: Stephen Boxer’s prim, credulous anxious Gloucester too will prove dangerously ready to believe that a son is plotting against him with “We have seen the best of our times”.
As treacheries and tortures unravel, director Sam Mendes’ vision is all too recognizable in a world where dictators poison, stab and feed rivals to dogs while women in designer frocks can play as corruptly as men. Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril is a tight, dark knot of frustration, Anna Maxwell Martin gives us Regan as a minxily sadistic Knightsbridge nymphomaniac. Their final betrayal takes place beneath a massive Stalinist statue of Lear; we glimpse the ragged wretches of his underclass, and the final battle is of bombs and Kalashnikovs.
So it follows the contemporary National Theatre Shakespeare trope, like Hytner’s military Othello, police-state Macbeth and metropolitan Timon. But like The Winter’s Tale, this play depends heavily on making the tyrant’s initial craziness credible: every actor must find his way through that astonishing opening scene, that intemperate rage at Cordelia’s honesty. Some directors take the easy route of implying an incestuous back-story (the language often suggests it) . Here it is not explicit, and we have only Goneril snapping “never afflict yourself to know the cause”. Lear’s own nature must explain the disaster, and does.
For Simon Russell Beale gives us a tense old autocrat, his need for reassurance stoked by sensing his brain failing. His voice vibrates with tension, released in paroxysms of fury. Stanley Townsend’s shocked Kent offers the only clue to what Lear once was, and when he disguises himself as a rudely ranting Irish tramp, displays equal understanding of what the King is becoming: infantilized, reckless,needing to be amused by rude songs with hsi disruptive soldiery ( roaring “oggi oggi oggi” and hurling a whole dead stag on the table: we need to see why Goneril resents them).
The King must travel from rage to madness before he finds his final angry wisdoms. Not every Lear, however, manages to catch what Russell Beale does: moments of charm and sweetness when he is briefly convincing himself that Regan, at least, will be good to him. Dictators often have – or once had – charm: and the glory of this actor is his ability to switch from Stalin to Santa-Claus within a line. Those few smiling moments are precious, and core to his remarkable interpretation of the character.
The charm sneaks through also in his dealings with the Fool, the other truth-teller to power: played with subtle comic desperation by Adrian Scarborough in a check suit with a feathered trilby, as if he had stepped in from Osborne’s The Entertainer. And Mendes’ one wholly unexpected shock is his death, which I will not spoil but which makes perfect, rare, horrible dramatic sense.
It all does, and that’s the quality of this thrilling production: like all the best ones it brings out ideas and secrets from the text which shock you even after knowing the play for decades. Tom Brooke’s elfin, intially casual Edgar is particularly striking: a Poor Tom naked, scarred, the bare forked animal of Lear’s vision. Richard Clothier’s Albany too brings a rare distressed dignity to the part.
Not everything is perfect: Antony Ward’s design is nicely sparse with a cyclorama of threatening cloud and a bright hayfield for Cordelia’s return, but some quirk persuades Mendes to tolerate a ridiculous hydraulic mini-cliff, with visible mechanism, raising Lear improbably from the believable moor to shout “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” ten feet up as if he was in a musical. Sam Troughton’s Edmund, too is oddly directed: often delivering his threats from an inexplicable spotlight like a Bond villain.
But these are quibbles, cited only because of the miraculous fact that nothing can mar the impact of this great Lear. Or stop you choking in emotional shock at his final slow, quiet “Never, never, never, never, never” and sharp demand that all of us “Look there!” at Cordelia’s body, and contemplate the murdered innocence of truth.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 28 May