Review: King Lear screening from the National Theatre

Jasmine Brady 9 May 2014

In the year of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Performances of his work – including several productions of King Lear – are not uncommon, but Sam Mendes’ National Theatre production must stand out as one of the best. Under Mendes’s direction, the production succeeds in displaying the sheer magnitude of the suffering in the play alongside touching, personal performances which ensure that there is more to each character than solely their torment. It’s worth noting that watching the production as a live screening must differ hugely to being there in the theatre, but it definitely doesn’t make it any less watchable.

Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lear is moving and powerful, and his choice to play Lear as an old man beginning to suffer from Dementia is effective and believable, adding another level of sympathy to Lear’s abrupt fall from power. Russell Beale convincingly slips between Lear’s tyrannical refusal to accept criticism and his increasingly more frequent moments of love and affection as the play progresses, and I think made Lear more human than the way he is sometimes played.

As is expected with King Lear, moments of the production were very shocking and sometimes quite disturbing, a fact probably exacerbated by the ability of the camera to dictate which characters we were to watch at any one time. We are forced to see close ups of Gloucester’s face after having his eyes plucked out, and the moment where Lear, overtaken by madness, batters the Fool to death is both horrifying and unexpected. The production makes sure to recognise the true cruelty of suffering and the devastating consequences of madness.

This was the first time I have been to a live screening from a theatre and I wasn’t sure what it would be like, but in many ways it adds another layer to the production that wouldn’t be experienced in the theatre. Aside from a few moments where microphones were slightly muffled or the cameras lingered away from the action for a little too long, it was easy to forget that we weren’t watching the play in the way it is meant to be experienced, and in many cases, the extra detail and focus that the camera allows the audience made the play more meaningful. The interval feature about familial relationships was also very worth watching to hear a little more about what the actors were trying to display about their characters in their performances.

I often find that when I watch Shakespeare I only really enjoy it retrospectively. It’s easy to guiltily feel a bit bored by the language, ambivalent about how long the plays are, and to only really appreciate the production once out of the theatre. With this production this simply wasn’t the case. I was completely gripped and I’d definitely recommend going along to one of the encore screenings later this month. It’s a cultured thing to do so it basically counts as revision.