There is a large photograph on the front page of today’s newspaper. It is of Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin as Lear and Regan in the new production of King Lear in the Olivier Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes. This latest collaboration between Mendes and Russell Beale is clearly considered newsworthy; and Charles Spencer, on the Reviews page gives the show four stars.
I’m neutral on the subject of Sam Mendes, but where Simon Russell Beale is concerned, I’m a fan. I’ve seen him on stage many times, I’ve booked things that would largely not appeal to me solely on the strength of his participation, and have never been disappointed…..until now.
It’s probably a shameful confession, but here it is anyway. So little was I enjoying the experience, I left at the interval. I had sat through two hours, and the thought of another hour and a half brought tears to my eyes. I had already been near weeping for the half hour or so before the break, when I was on hyper alert for the rhyming couplet that normally indicates the end of an Act; and each time I had convinced myself that it must, it just must be now, another actor would appear on stage out of the darkness, and shout some more. Finally, during the eye gouging scene in which they poured water onto the stage, and the bloodied actor wiped his face on it, my silent cry that surely this must be the interval, if only to allow time for the wiping up, the lights went out and the stage was empty.
After sitting through some awful nights in the theatre trying to appreciate Shakespeare (yes I’m talking about you, Ralph Fiennes) I had all but given up on it. It was the National’s production of Othello last year which encouraged me to believe that Shakespeare didn’t necessarily mean meretricious tedium. That was a production of a play I didn’t know well, but which, because of it’s cleverness and the brilliance of the performances, let me understand it, and engage with it on both an intellectual as well as an emotional level.
King Lear is another of the canon that I don’t know well, apart from the broad brush strokes: the three daughters, the carving up of the kingdom, the old king going mad….. and with SRB in the lead, surely here was a production that would enlighten and entertain me.
I think my dislike of the production all stems from a single problem, which was that I couldn’t understand what they were saying. For all the shouting and shrieking, the words were remarkably indistinct. This, added to the frequent changing of scene, of one group of actors leaving as another arrived, I couldn’t really work out what was going on, or more importantly why.
S, my theatre companion and I, were in agreement that the only actor whose words were being enunciated clearly enough for us to hear was the one playing Edmund. It was therefore very amusing to read subsequently (I’m far too tight fisted to buy a programme) that this was Paapa Essiedu, the understudy for Sam Troughton who had lost his voice midway through the performance of the previous day. Maybe as understudy, he’d not yet achieved the ‘production style’. It was very disappointing, but must have been a production decision, because I have never not been able to understand what Simon Russell Beale was saying before; and Anna Maxwell Martin’s usually mellifluous voice was lost in her awkward, shrieking harpie.
S would have probably stayed for the second half if I hadn’t asked her if the only reason for staying was that we thought we ‘should’. Leaving was the only option once we’d acknowledged that it was the naughty thing that we shouldn’t do.
Have you seen it? Did it get better after the interval?