Theater Review: King Lear, by the National Theatre

I attended the NT Live broadcast of King Lear at my local cinema last night. The National Theatre broadcasts a half-dozen plays a year, live to cinemas around the world. This production features Simon Russell Beale as King Lear, and will be re-broadcast a number of times to cinemas in the UK and in other countries.

In this modern production, King Lear is a despot in some vaguely modern country. It is modern dress, and with modern sets, and weapons (for the soldiers).

The first thing that struck me about this production was that EVERYONE WAS YELLING MOST OF THE TIME. It was quite disturbing. This wasn’t just about actors projecting their voices, but yelling; very loud. Lear, especially, was loud throughout the first part of the play, though he did tone down his volume a bit later on. But most of the other characters YELLED TOO MUCH.

The intermission took place at Act IV, well after Gloucester’s eyes were gouged out; a violent moment, that was brutal and bloody in this production. This meant that the first part of the play was quite long – about 1:50 – and the second part just over an hour. It gave an odd balance to the story, but the attack on Gloucester is a pivotal moment in the play, and sets up the great scene on the heath.


I enjoyed this production, and Simon Russell Beale’s performance was astounding; he is totally method, and he inhabits Lear in an interesting way. During the intermission, there was a brief “making of” where Beale discussed his portrayal of Lear as a man with Lewy body dementia, and Beale adopted certain movements to replicate this. Beale becomes this madman, wholly and totally.

However, I left the cinema with a feeling of incompleteness. Some of the minor characters were excellent – Stephen Boxer, as Gloucester, confirmed the qualities that I saw in this actor in the title role of the RSC’s Titus Andronicus, which I saw twice last year. (I’d like to see Stephen Boxer in more Shakespearean roles.)

There were some brilliant scenes, and the long scene with Gloucester and Edgar, then Lear, on the heath, was memorable, especially in its Beckettian approach.


The three sisters were excellent, but Cordelia’s acting – she was played by Olivia Vinall – was a bit exaggerated, and Tom Brooke, as Edgar, was surprisingly good, in an odd way. Adrian Scarborough was excellent as the fool; his acting, while sticking perfectly to the text, was so natural that it seemed improvised.

Some of the other characters were just disappointing. Sam Troughton, as Edmund, played a sort of Snidely Whiplash character, which made all the interactions between him and others a bit skewed. Stanley Townsend’s Earl of Kent was wooden, as though he wasn’t even in the same play.

Hence my disappointment. It’s great to have an A-list actor play the title role of a Shakespeare play, but when the other actors aren’t up to his level, it makes for an unbalanced performance. One can see this play as Simon Russell Beale’s potentially award-winning performance, but that’s one actor in a great role, in a great play; the rest just weren’t up to par.

This was a great King Lear – the role – but not a great King Lear, the play. it’s a shame that one actor skews the overall opinion one has of a play, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen that. Beale is a great King Lear; he is an excellent actor in most of what he does. But one great performance does not a great production make, and this Lear shows that, while the lead actor was excellent, there were too many weak points in the cast to make it a truly great production.