King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes for the National Theatre, London at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, IL for NT Live. May 26, 2014.
Reviewed by Regina Buccola
In May, I had the unique experience of taking a backstage tour featuring key set pieces, props and costumes for the National Theatre’s production of King Lear in the morning, a platform talk by director Sam Mendes in the afternoon, and an NT Live viewing of the production in Chicago the following week. I have spent a great deal of time at the National Theatre, both seeing shows and conducting performance studies-based research of productions that have taken place there. Thus, I am familiar with the theater space that I am seeing on the screen when I attend an NT Live screening in ways that some of the other audience members are not.
Having also seen the NT Live screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth at the Music Box Theater in the fall of 2013, I was particularly attuned to the way in which the use of the performance space in the original production impacts the quality of the video footage of that production when I saw Mendes’s Lear by contrast. Branagh’s production adopted a Game of Thrones aesthetic; set in St. Peter’s Church in Ancoats with the audience seated around three sides of a mud floor below them, Branagh’s Macbeth relied on the frisson of sacrilege inherent in setting demonic conjurations, acts of regicide and child murder, and guilt-induced suicide in a nominally sacred space, albeit deconsecrated. Moreover, the mud floor of the space – which initially read as a period move akin to Roman Polanski’s Dunsinane in his film version (1971), where Lady Macbeth walked barefoot through puddles to greet her lord and master – eventually began to disintegrate and smear itself all over the actors, like the blood Lady Macbeth imagines covering her hands. While I was able to perceive both of these effects on the movie screen, I am sure they were more evocative when experienced first-hand. Wet earth has a smell, for example, that NT Live viewers did not experience, though those in Manchester for the original performances of Branagh’s Macbeth likely did.
Focusing on the actor’s bodies rather than their surroundings, Mendes’s Lear did not pose such problems for viewers munching popcorn and slurping sodas as they took it in. A long table set with microphones to convey the concept of a press conference in the opening scene; the same table used for the display of the deer slaughtered by Lear and his carousing knights in Act 1, scene 4, a Lenin-esque statue of Lear modeled on the figure of the actor playing him (Simon Russell Beale); and a claw-foot bathtub and length of metal pipe used for the Act 3, scene 5 “trial” of Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin), which culminated in a mad Lear bludgeoning his Fool (Adrian Scarborough) to death were Mendes’s main props. Anthony Ward’s relatively austere set design for the action before the interval gave way to a convincing field of flowers and tall grasses for Lear’s full-scale dementia.
In his platform talk, Mendes explained that, for him and for Beale, the central line in Lear is: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” (3.2.60). The important aspect of this line for director and actor is, as Mendes put it, “that it’s bullshit.” Mendes and Beale read Lear’s erratic behavior as indicative of the onset of dementia. Thus, in Mendes’s production, when Lear asks querulously after his Fool after he has killed him a blind rage, convinced that he is Goneril, we are meant to understand that he does not even remember the atrocity we have watched him commit. I was fascinated by the idea of handling the Fool’s disappearance in this way when I heard Mendes describe it in the platform talk. When I saw the NT Live footage of the production, however, I realized that the reactions of the other characters in the scene – Kent/Caius (Stanley Townsend) and Edgar (Tom Brooke) – read, in this scenario, as wildly inadequate to the occasion.
More effective was Martin’s Daddy’s girl performance as Regan. She curled up in his lap like a sex kitten to purr out her love in the opening contest for Lear’s lands, and Beale actually slapped her ass in titillated appreciation of her performance. Given Regan’s subsequent insertion of herself into the adulterous dynamic between Goneril and Edmund (Sam Troughton), Martin’s use of Regan’s sexuality to out-fox her sister offered a consistent touchstone for her character without fully going down the path of Jane Smiley’s incestuous horror show in A Thousand Acres.
Mendes’s Lear worked very well viewed in a movie theater. Though Ward designed and the actors made use of a ramp thrust out from the stage, the Olivier Theatre is, essentially, a proscenium-style theatre. The cameras for this particular production were very well situated to capture the views that one would have from various positions in the audience, and we even got to see, during the interval, our London counterparts mingling and wandering about the theater space as we did the same in Chicago. Moreover, the cameras occasionally do something that a theatergoer cannot, and zoom in to capture the nuances in the evocative faces of the actors. Beale, Martin, Fleetwood, and Brooke in particular were well worth seeing in this way. All of them act with their entire bodies (particularly apparent in Brooke’s case, since he spent a good bit of stage time wearing nothing but a few smears of mud). I do not know that Mendes – also, of course, a film director – had anything to do with the camerawork recording his stage production. Whether he did or not, the camerawork for the NT Live productions I have seen at the Music Box and at The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern University has been consistently strong.
Coincidentally, I sat next to a jury member for the Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago when I went to the Music Box to see King Lear. She spoke at length with me about how thrilled she is to have the opportunity to enjoy the productions of the National Theatre and the other English theatres with which they partner (including the Donmar Warehouse and the Manchester International Festival) here, in the States. An international initiative, NT Live accords theatergoers all over the world this privilege; I agree wholeheartedly that we are fortunate to have it.