There's no way around it. It's the year of King Lear and King Lears. We've already had Frank Langella at Brooklyn's BAM. Michael Pennington just finished roaming the heath across that Brooklyn street at TFANA. John Lithgow takes on the royal robes only to throw them off this summer at Shakespeare in the Park, and London's Globe is sending Joseph Marcell to the Skirball Center this fall.
So the probability is high that theatergoers are feeling a bit Leared out, no matter how devoted they may be to what's arguably William Shakespeare's greatest tragedy -- or possibly his greatest tragedy of advanced age, whereas Hamlet is his greatest tragedy of young manhood.
A word to the wise: Don't be reluctant to take in yet another up-close and personal look at the "foolish, fond old man," or you'll miss Simon Russell Beale's Lear, which has its New York City high-definition screening May 1 at the Skirball Center. (For screenings elsewhere, go to www.NTLive.com and enter the appropriate zip code).
This is the King Lear that Beale's director Sam Mendes (they worked together on Mendes's Bridge Project) shaped into a completely sold-out, standing-ovation-only run in the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium ending in early June.
It would be folly to claim this is the greatest Lear yet seen, but it's surely no exaggeration to declare it's right up there with the best of them. Part of the explanation is that, as he always does, the portly Russell Beale (even his Hamlet was portly) draws on bottomless reserves of emotion.
For instance, the quietly pained delivery of the line "Oh, let me not be mad" when he's only starting to realize the mistake he's made by cutting daughter Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) out of his legacy is only the beginning of heartbreak he builds into Lear's deterioration. The dying fall in volume he fashions from "never never never never never" is another link in the play's heartbreak chain.
(Something to which HD viewers can likely look forward are close-ups on moments like these, the sort of intimate flashes spectators in the theater don't get to relish.)
Grizzled, bearded, bent with Lear's years, Russell Beale nevertheless shows the king's hurricane force in the earlier scenes. When he realizes that Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) the daughters he's favored, are showing their true natures -- "nature" and "unnatural" are words peppering the poetry, as is "nothing" -- he rails at them with the kind of power Lear unleashes as the actual storm gathers. Even in the final scene, Russell Beale momentarily reprises the king's regal manner, which isn't something most actors playing Lear think to inject.
And Russell Beale is hardly working in a vacuum. He's surrounded by actors giving as good as they get. Fleetwood and Martin are diamond hard. In the sisters' competition for the conniving bastard son Edmund (Sam Troughton), they're sexy and sassy as two women intent on landing the same man can be. Troughton's Edmund is manipulative, but he lends the character more thoughtful reflection than is usual, while pole-thin Tom Brooke's Edgar has more guile than is usually accorded the betrayed half-brother.
They're matched and then some by Adrian Scarborough as Lear's Fool. It's no new insight into the Fool to say he has many of the best lines Shakespeare broadcasts. He certainly has the wisest lines in the work -- for instance, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise" -- and Scarborough delivers them with an intriguing blend of assurance and humility.
Stephen Boxer as a stately Gloucester, Michael Nardone as an especially nasty Cornwall, Richard Clothier as a substantial Albany, Stanley Townsend as a Kent who takes on (is it?) a Scottish accent when he's exiled, Simon Manyonda as the fawning, mocking Oswald -- they're all a tribute to their own skills and Mendes's guidance.
Mendes deserves praise for much of the production, as do set and costume designer Anthony Ward, sound designer Paul Arditti (King Lear is always a challenge for a sound designer), lighting designer Paul Pyant (the same goes for Lear and lighting designers) and projection designer Jon Driscoll (many threatening clouds).
The prominent feature on Ward's set is a yellow cross on the stage floor that often serves as a runway. Part of it revolves when the broad turntable goes into gear, which happens often as set pieces arrive and depart. At the banquet when Regan informs her father his 100 soldiers aren't welcome, the Fool climbs atop a table to manipulate the head of an animal skin lying there. It's an inspired moment. Ward dresses Goneril and Regan in slinky garb. One of Regan's skirts is open to the upper thigh until she closes it by way of a zipper.
Yes, a zipper. This production is in modern dress, which isn't Mendes's freshest notion. Aside from the fact that the recent Othello at the National included soldiers in camouflage fatigues, the modern-dress concept has already run quite a course. Shakespeare's men in authority wearing business suits that Giorgio Armani might have produced has also been seen plenty. One of the odd consequences in this version is that when Edgar confronts Edmund, there's no swordplay. Edgar's conquest comes about differently.
Playing Lear is frequently deemed an actor's crowning achievement. Which is to say, the king's compromising away a crown can lead to the bestowing of a different kind of crown. Russell Beale -- who's played Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Timon of Athens, Falstaff, Benedick (I've seen them all) -- has now assumed that crown. What's left for him to play in the Shakespeare canon (Othello?) is a question mark. The chance to see him in this King Lear is too good to pass up.