Theatre Critic and Journalist

On King Lear and Love

On King Lear and Love

I’ve always taken King Lear to be a play about life. The triumph of Sam Mendes’ production is to show it as one about love. The distinction might look small – to live and to love are not worlds apart – but it is significant. It turns the central action of the play from description to prescription.

First, a caveat: this is a lopsided Lear. When it shows goodness, it is very, very good. When it’s on baddies, it’s horrid. We get an Edmund that goes from suited white-collar to booted blackshirt most unexpectedly. (Does he step into a phone booth and transform into Ubermensch?) Goneril and Regan make Cinderella’s sisters look saintly; one’s an uptight mock Downton Abbey heiress, the other a brittle, unfeeling vamp. (All this, by the way, despite devilishly watchable performances from Sam Troughton, Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin; they just go off in the wrong direction.)

Still, forget that because, as a treatise on love – even as a manifesto for an aging society – Mendes’ production is impeccably tender and eloquent. As a gesture – a big public gesture on the Olivier stage at that – that’s an incredibly touching thing.

*****

Mendes starts with a solar eclipse: the sun, like Lear’s mind, is blotted out and the world, like his kingdom, is thrown into temporary darkness. Stormclouds do the same, of course, but this image elevates the play to cosmic significance, as if the planets have ominously conspired to throw Lear’s England into turmoil. It restores a vast mythic quality to this vast, mythic play – even if it does feel a little bit Lord of the Rings-y.

But the image does something subtler as well, providing a gentle suggestion about how to watch what follows. We are used to watching King Lear by staring at Lear himself: we watch for decay and death’s encroachment; we see in him something of our own future fates; we watch the individual actor hauling himself up this Everest of a role. Instead Mendes asks us not to look directly at the frail king, but to see the play for its peripheries.

Lear might be the protagonist, but – broadly speaking – the play happens to him. Going mad is not an action. You do not lose your mind. It loses you. Mendes wants us to look, instead, at those that act around and in relation to Lear: those that do him wrong, yes, but, far more importantly, those that watch over him: at Kent and the Fool, at Edgar and Cordelia. He wants to show us the love in this most cruel of plays.

It starts with a tribunal: Lear, a uniformed dictator, addresses his daughters through a microphone. They sit, facing him from behind a long desk, and answer back through tabletop mics of their own. He demands their love and two of the three pay it lip service. But this is a place parched of love, where there’s distance – both physical and digital – between a father and his daughters. Come the end, the three daughters make the same line around a long table. Only this time, they’re corpses and Lear is among them, clinging to Cordelia, crying. He has learned to love.

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear cuts a solitary figure early on. In making themselves political gods, dictators must distance themselves from their citizens. He clenches his body like a concrete slab; he makes himself armour-plated. Only Adrian Scarborough’s fond, fond fool is allowed in; he is a children’s entertainer, yes, but the laughter he provokes can calm like a lullaby. It’s as if he’s helping a child with behavioural difficulties. Each time he calls Lear ‘nuncle,’ the old man softens.

That caring edge swells after Lear’s banishment from his daughters’ homes. The Fool, ill-equipped and dragging his little wheelie case, follows Lear onto the Heath. He follows wherever Lear might go – all the way to death if necessary. For all that Mendes goes OTT (Remember the video for Michael Jackson’s Earth Song? That.), Lear’s stride out into the storm is, in no uncertain terms, a suicide attempt. Anthony Ward’s set slopes and Lear stands on his own cliff – just as blind Gloucester will later – and urges the elements on. Scarborough’s Fool clings to his leg throughout, braced to die if it comes to it, but also holding him down and providing some human contact and comfort.

You see it too, when Lear meets Poor Tom on the heath. Kent (Stanley Townsend) and the Fool sit back and watch. They never intrude, but keep an eye on the pair gurgling nonsense at one another. Later, Edgar (Tom Brooke) does the same for Gloucester; he guides him to the ‘cliff’ and stands back to let him act freely without harming himself. There’s a sense of a toy world, of two birds singing in their cage, as Lear puts it later. It even offers half an answer to that old problem of Edgar’s not revealing himself: to do so would be an act of ego, it would be to take ownership of altruistic acts and so to impose a debt on his dad.

Above all else, Mendes shows the sheer loving generosity of coaxing someone back to life. It’s there in the watching and waiting, in allowing them their world without mollycoddling or fussing. It is in letting the fictions that they take for reality stand for reality. It’s in the forgiveness and respect that Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) shows her father in spite of all else. It’s in holding someone’s hand while they die. It’s in risking one’s own life – the Fool loses his, battered to death suddenly and unstoppably, by the man he’s trying to help – for someone else.

This is love: it exists in caring for someone absolutely; giving your whole self over to them; protecting without restraining; allowing them their own free dignity, no matter how undignified they might look to outsiders.

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