In recent years I've seen three pretty big productions of King Lear - the first was Jacobi's at the intimate Donmar Warehouse (with the 'restart the scene' moment on the NTLive Broadcast); the second was the electric live experience of seeing Pryce's version at the Almeida; and then there's this BIG production starring the incredible Simon Russell Beale on the Olivier theatre stage from National Theatre, again seen via NTLive.
Beale is an angry dictator of a father and King, with the initial carving of the kingdom based on declarations of love in front of a massed audience of the king's supporters. No wonder he's royally foul when Cordelia refuses to play along. But the setting of making a microphoned demand for filial affection in front of others also gives context to Goneril's acquiescence to the display and Regan's scathing upping of the ante in her gushingly flirty embrace on Lear's lap (she's clearly been playing this game for years, with her combination of suppressed disdain and wilful playfulness as the coy sexually focused middle sister). These older siblings have learnt to give what is required.
Cordelia does not, cannot, perhaps by virtue of her having been the most beloved of Lear's three daughters (and what of their mothers?) I have to say that this was the first production where I felt any kind of real connection to Cordelia - it's a pretty limited role and of the three portrayals I've recently seen I'd possibly say it was the most rounded (the problems being inherent to the part not the actress playing it). All credit to Olivia Vinall, whose performance actually felt moving. (The reuniting of Lear and Cordelia near the end - apologies for the spoilers people - actually moved me to tears: partly through Beale's conveying of Lear's flashes of lucidity from amidst his madness, and partly through her heartbroken temporary pleasure at the recognition he shows her).
I know others will have come because of SRB (who is pretty damn fine), but I'll admit the really big draw for me was Anna Maxwell Martin as the venal Regan, whose psychotic giggles were simultaneously flirtatious, manipulative, and sadistic in tone. I've been following AMM since I saw her in The Coast of Utopia alongside Douglas Henshall back in 2002, before she even did His Dark Materials at the National in 2003 (a work that brought her to prominence in theatre, along with Cabaret in 2006, and ahead of Bleak House in 2005 which brought her television presence to the fore). She is, frankly, on all kinds of levels, breathtaking. She strikes me as having the same intensity and beauty in her acting as Lyndsay Duncan has always conveyed (this isn't just about physical beauty, though both are astonishingly women, but as much about the internalised truth of a character, whether good or evil, that each can convey).
Her foil here is a chilly Goneril played by Kate Fleetwood, lacking some of the energy that Gina McKee brought to the Domnar production, or the hinted at abusive relationship from Zoe Waites in the Almeida version, but a fine performance nonetheless.
Beale's performance has been largely praised - and it's large performance in so many ways, especially in the early scenes where his anger is that of a bulldog who has been in charge of the house for many years, increasingly wayward in his behaviour and vicious in his responses. He storms and shouts across the stage, irritably barking and biting those around him. His shaven head lends him a Stalin-like appearance, but at least it stops him looking too much like 'Santa Claus' (as he notes in the interval documentary, a fine short study of the production's approach to the play'). As the play progresses and Lear's faculties fail, he becomes more stooped, shaky, haunted and hunted. He is increasingly distracted, experiencing hallucinations, regressing to childhood and adopting the tell-tale signs of sexual inappropriateness and lost inhibitions, often scarcely aware of his actions (he is aghast with horror as he sees a dead body in the scenes just before the Interval*). For all his diminished state of mind - and the sag of his undergarments even makes it seem as if he loses physical weight as contrasted to the belted fitted military garb of his initial scenes - this is a monumental Lear. The investigation that Beale undertook to understand the despair of Lear certainly seems to pay off, for Lear's moments of lucidity feel increasingly heartbreaking as anyone who has seen first hand the combination of symptoms associated with dementia and Parkinson's will attest. "O let me be not mad".
Elsewhere there are other fine performances, only occasionally overshadowed (or undermined) by slightly excessive set design or staging decisions. I don't think anyone doubts Adrian Scarborough makes a fine Fool but he and Beale didn't need to ascend the mighty hilltop with thunderbolts and lightening (very very frightening me). There are a LOT of bloody bodies on stage by the end (meaning Regan has to shuffle in her death-throws out of the way of the action). Poor Tom's performance is properly - albeit briefly - naked ("Poor Tom's a-cold" indeed), which could have felt awkward but actually worked very well with Tom Brooke bringing stronger pathos to the scenes once he becomes Poor Tom than to those he has as the hapless brother Edgar to bastard Edmund. Much as I like Sam Troughton and have found him capable of strong performances, his was a less convincing one as the vile and villainous Edmund, but I think that was as much down to direction and costume as anything else. He resembled an ageing school boy in his suit more than a wily, manipulative seducer of both older sisters and of the pliable suspicions of his father. Troughton seemed to lack appropriate heft (though not physically) and the necessarily conspiratorial asides were unfortunately stagily presented with on-glasses/off-glasses direction. A shame, as I've been very convinced by previous Edmunds.
Elsewhere Stanley Townsend makes for a generous Kent, supportive of Cordelia right through, whilst Stephen Boxer's slight frame gave Gloucester the air of a semi-valued privy counsellor as civil servant to the ruler; as ever it is a role that comes into its own once he is blinded (a scene that always shocks and which created paroxysms of delight from Regan who clearly 'got off' on the whole torture thing, despite what happens to her husband Cornwall in the process). Albany remains a cuckolded sap, though honestly this Edmund didn't feel like a threat - but nevertheless Richard Clothier invests this husband with enough sense to feel that he understands what has happened by the end (and his tangential part in it).
Overall, it is a strong but resolutely 4 star performance (as has been a recurring response in most reviews) - magnificent in so many respects and yet lacking something crucial to bring the rating up to a full five star value. Very much worth seeing with some exquisite performances and moments, but not the full-force it could be.
* No intended spoilers here, but it explains a hole in the narrative that has bugged audiences and readers for centuries. Marvellously well done I thought.