King Lear

William Shakespeare
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)
From

Pleasingly, the mouth-watering prospect of seeing Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale re-united comfortably lives up to sky-high expectations bolstered by a considerable degree of hype.

The duo have a wonderful track record together in Shakespeare, most recently collaborating on TV in The Hollow Crown but previously delivering unforgettable productions pairing Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale with equally good Chekhovs.

This 3½-hour King Lear is both coherent and gripping throughout, though the 1940s setting in the two hours before the scarily dramatic interval curtain seemingly zooms forward to the 21st century after the break.

Anthony Ward's set speeds the evening along and is characterised by two "iron curtains", not to mention an equally symbolic cross, on the much-used revolve. Here, a hoarsely dictatorial Lear with a Richard III humped back, rants his kingdom away to his older daughters, a pair of stage sisters who are only ugly beneath exceptionally glamorous skin.

The retiring King's behaviour is so bombastic and repulsive that you can almost understand why Kate Fleetwood's Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan have lost patience with him. Their behaviour thereafter though is cruel beyond belief, with tempers as sharp as their stylish frocks.

From the beginning, it is last year's Desdemona, Olivia Vinall playing Cordelia, who loves the heavily bearded, old man, not that he so much as notices until far too late.

Before a deeply touching reconciliation, support comes from Stanley Townsend, transforming from courtly Received Pronunciation to his native Irish accent while proving as memorable as any Kent and Adrian Scarborough portraying a jovial, comforting Fool.

They become allied with Tom Brooke's unsettlingly mad Edgar, who is fighting his own demons. This lackadaisical young innocent's burden comes in the form of an evil half-brother, convincingly brought to the stage by Sam Troughton and a father who doesn't appreciate his illegitimate son's worth, Stephen Boxer's Gloucester paying dearly for his impetuous misjudgement.

Giving heart and soul to this wonderful production is the inimitable Simon Russell Beale who moves on from terrifying belligerence to convincing madness and eventually great sensitivity, delivering heart-rending speeches ("let me not be mad") along the way.

He peaks in every sense with a powerfully delivered "blow winds" not so much on a blasted heath as what looks like an illuminated ski jump, courtesy of lighting designer Paul Pyant whose work is exemplary throughout the evening.

Sam Mendes's contribution is most apparent in a novel reading of the Fool's disappearance. On this occasion, the underlying cause of death is given a chilling new twist that for many will change the whole balance of one of the best-known plays in the English language.

This really is theatre and acting at its very best in a Lear fit to compete with the best in recent times from Ians Holm and McKellen.

Even better, while tickets might be hard to come by, thanks to Travelex anyone who can strike lucky will find that many are on sale at the bargain price of £12.

If that doesn't work, book an evening out on 1 May when King Lear is to be presented in over 500 cinemas in the UK and many more worldwide as part of the NT Live project. The benefits of camera close-ups might well more than offset any disappointment due to missing out on seeing a tremendous troupe of actors performing in the flesh.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher