Stage, Theatre & TV3rd April 2014

King Lear at the National Theatre: An Accessible Family Affair

The National Theatre and Stagetext teamed up to provide a captioned performance of King Lear

by Richard Turner

I was really pleased that I had managed to get tickets for the captioned performance of Sam Mendes’s production of ‘King Lear’ at the National Theatre last week. When I told some of my friends afterwards they couldn’t believe I had been so fortunate as they said it had sold out months ago and they were unable to get tickets.

I had been looking forward to it for ages and I wanted to find out whether it was really worth all the hype. I’d not seen ‘King Lear’ before at the theatre so after quickly reading up on the synopsis of the plot beforehand I headed off to the theatre with my wife Joanna and my sister to see one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

Once inside, the theatre was packed out.  It was great that we had really good seats in the stalls with perfect views of the two STAGETEXT caption units on either side of the stage. We were also very close to a kind of runway, which ran through the stalls and onto the stage. The runway was used throughout the play to heighten the dramatic tension as the actors either ran along it or gave some of their greatest speeches on it. This seemed to make it appear more immediate somehow, as it was used as a bridge between the audience and the stage.

When the play began, I was struck by how amazing it all looked on the stage. It was set in relatively modern times, and Mendes had designed it to look like a fascist military dictatorship such as Stalin’s Russia or Nazi Germany. Much of the cast was dressed in military uniforms and later in the play, King Lear’s knights, who formed his entourage, were all dressed in black SS-style military uniforms, adding to the authoritarian tone of King Lear’s leadership.

I didn’t find this an easy play to watch because it is so dark, heavy and tragic. At times I felt like I was almost enduring it rather than enjoying it. But the acting was superb and the plot totally gripping despite its dark undertones and capacity to shock people. It is a complex play with two plots running simultaneously, but despite this, I found I could follow the dialogue well through the captions.

Simon Russell Beale, who played the main character King Lear, was absolutely incredible. He managed to play the role very convincingly of a very tough, ruthless pre-Roman King of England at the start, who controlled his subjects and his daughters with an iron fist, but then he turned into a tragic old man, who ends up becoming broken and mad with remorse when he realises how wrong he has been and how unjust he was to his youngest daughter Cordelia. He had banished her to France for not flattering him and telling him how she loved him (even though she really did) in order to inherit a third of the country, unlike her two sisters, who had insincerely declared their love for him to get their fortune.

He stumbles and rages around the stage throughout the play like a man possessed. But somehow, it is only when he loses his mind that he suddenly seems more human and compassionate towards others, such as Gloucester’s eldest son Edgar, who was betrayed by his illegitimate brother Edmund and wrongly cast out of his home by his father. He also showed true compassion to Gloucester himself, who has been brutally blinded in his own home by Lear’s evil daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall. It must take incredible experience and training as an actor to portray such a complex character as convincingly as this, and Simon Russell Beale played the role with real depth, conviction and passion.

The rest of the actors played their roles superbly too, particularly Kate Fleetwood and Hannah Stokely, who played Lear’s cruel and manipulative daughters Goneril and Regan. Goneril is portrayed as a ruthless, ambitious woman, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants and Regan is a cruel, vampish sex kitten, who easily betrays her husband and seduces Edmund behind his back, while also sadistically enjoying watching Gloucester being tortured and having his eyes torn out as punishment for hiding the whereabouts of her father.

I also thought that Stephen Boxer, who played the Earl of Gloucester, was excellent. I could feel how anguished, distraught and vulnerable he must have felt after he had been blinded so cruelly, when he was wandering around the stage unable to see anything and having to be guided by his son Edgar.

There were many shocking and violent scenes in this production, as well as some scenes of nudity on the stage. At times I saw several elderly people in the audience wince and squirm in their seats uneasily at the more bloody scenes and the nudity. For instance, when Lear bludgeoned his loyal Fool to death for no apparent reason in a bathtub when he was losing his mind, and the final scene containing the murders and suicides of the main characters. But this play is depicting an evil time in history, so I didn’t find the scenes of violence at all gratuitous. They were just true to Shakespeare’s original play, which is bloody and violent, so I felt they were necessary and made the scenes seem more authentic.

At the end along with the rest of the audience, we gave the actors a well—deserved standing ovation.  I am still amazed at how well they can perform such complex, dark Shakespearian tragedies such as this with such conviction and depth of emotion. I really loved this production and so did my wife and sister.

My sister told me afterwards how much she had enjoyed watching a live quality performance such as this. She told me that the captions really helped her too, because even though she could hear the dialogue clearly, she found it really useful to read the captions to follow it better. They help everybody, not just deaf and hard of hearing people.

I think STAGETEXT and the National Theatre have done a fantastic job in making this great production so accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. I felt so lucky to have been able to enjoy it with my family on equal terms with everyone else there.

Article by Richard Turner

posted in Entertainment / Stage, Theatre & TV

3rd April 2014