May 19 NT Live: King Lear

Simon Russell Beale plays King Lear

Simon Russell Beale plays King Lear

Simon Russell Beale is a royal ‘King Lear’

The Manlius Art Cinema initiates local coverage of London’s ‘National Theatre Live’ with Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy, set here in the 21st century

By Barbara Haas

Can it be true? Is it possible to see great theater… in Manlius?

Yes. Thanks to Nat Tobin and Eileen Lowell of the Manlius Art Cinema, Syracusans can now enjoy a sampling of England’s National Theater’s superb productions via NT Live. These are not simulcasts along the lines of what the Metropolitan Opera has been doing for several years now — but who cares? The NT Live staged productions are very well filmed, and Manlius Art Cinema has invested in new equipment that projects them well. Best of all, we get to see some of the best theater the English-speaking world has to offer.

Monday night’s initial broadcast of NT Live started off at the very top, with a performance of Shakespeare’s magnificent King Lear. British actor Simon Russell Beale, in the title role, may not a familiar name in the U.S., but he is well known to the British and to all those interested in theater. If you missed the showing on Monday can get a chance to see this worthwhile production: There will be a repeat on Saturday, May 24, at noon. And to be sure, Simon Russell Beale’s masterful performance is not to be missed.

It took Director Sam Mendes nine years to convince Beale to undertake this daunting role. And no wonder: It’s more than just a bit intimidating to play the central character in what many consider The Greatest Play Ever Written. Actors can play Hamlet relatively early in their careers, when they might be forgiven for some inadequacies. But by the time an actor is seasoned enough to play Lear, he’s supposed to know what he’s doing. Beale does — and then some.

Among other difficulties, the sheer physical demands of this role are great. Lear is on stage for most of the play’s three and a half hour duration.  He’s got to descend into howling madness and still have enough strength left at the end to carry his daughter’s limp body in his arms.

An important part of the challenge is deciding what this play is really about. Is it, as I was taught when I studied this play in college years ago, about Lear’s spiritual growth from an imperious, order-shouting, shortsighted ruler to someone who understands — in the best sense of the word — what it is to be a man? Or is it a nihilistic play that elaborates on the idea that the gods “kill us for their sport?” The scene of blinded Gloucester and mad Lear philosophizing together calls to mind Waiting for Godot. Perhaps the biggest puzzle here is what makes Lear tick. Yes, the ill treatment at his daughters’ hands literally makes him mad. But the craziest thing Lear does comes right at the beginning of the play, when he disowns his dearest daughter and hands over his kingdom to the wicked sisters. Talk about poor estate planning!

Sam Mendes has chosen to present Lear as a 21st century military dictator who, at the hands of his scheming daughters, suffers an abrupt fall from power. As Lear enters in the opening scene, his soldiers — standing in uniformed formation at the periphery of the stage — give their leader a crisp salute. When his daughters make their public declaration of their love for him, their words are broadcast via loudspeakers. After Regan’s first rejection of Lear and his “one hundred knights,” he sits in uncomprehending dejection at the base of a statue of himself in his days of power. When banished Kent returns in disguise, he carries a duffel bag and leads the knights with the chant of a drill sergeant. A military setting emphasizes an aspect of the play that’s not always apparent: The country whose reign Lear has left behind is a dangerous place. Spies lurk everywhere, and the threat of betrayal and torture is never very far away.

Shakespeare’s play has such riches to mine, any intelligent interpretation will expose new veins. In the sub-plot of the play, the Earl of Gloucester has two sons one the resentful and ambitious illegitimate son Edmund who schemes to make his gullible father believe that the other son (Edgar) is planning to kill his father. Suddenly suspected as a patricide and in danger for his own life, Edgar disguises himself as poor Tom, the lowliest of low beggars  bemired in dirt, sleeping in ditches and living on whatever he can catch. In this production’s contemporary setting, poor Tom  sitting dejectedly on the ground with his back against a wall  suggests any of the homeless you might see on the streets today.

So this play is, among much else, about poverty and homelessness. Lear, cast out of doors in a fierce storm, feels a sudden kinship with “poor naked wretches” who in their “houseless poverty” always suffer the kind of misery he is now experiencing.

“O, I have taken too little care of this,” reflects the fallen king who has grown in his humanity.

What makes these and other directorial choices work is the masterful performance Beale, himself. For me the first requirement of a great Shakespearean actor is how he speaks. He needs to command his voice just as convincingly as a musician needs to command his instrument or voice. And Beale has it all: phrasing, color, dynamics, timing  everything necessary to express meaning. (Beale’s body language is equally expressive.) The Malay-born British actor has said in interviews that the key to his interpretation of Lear’s character is projecting a dementia that brings on sudden outbursts of anger as well as diminished comprehension. Beale’s bullet head hangs slightly forward as he seeks to understand what has brought about his diminished state. His stage presence is so commanding that even in those scenes from which he is absent, the Gloucester sub-plot for example, seem to pale in comparison.

His skill is all the more remarkable for his versatility. A few seasons ago on London’s West End he played a cross-dressing entertainer who did hilarious impersonations of Marlene Dietrich and Carmen Miranda!

Following Saturday’s encore presentation of King Lear there’s more coming up from NT Live at the Manlius Art Cinema. On June 9 and 14 there will be a showing of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based upon the best-seller by Mark Haddon.  Later shows include a comedy by Alan Ayckbourn and the tragedy Medea of Euripides. The best way to keep informed is by going to ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Some years ago Regal Cinemas dropped these NT Live presentations because of poor attendance. Of course people didn’t come: Nobody knew about them! So spread the word to your friends. These productions are too good to pass us by yet again.

Details Box:
What: William Shakespeare’s King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes
Who: From the English National Theatre, broadcast by NT Live
Syracuse-area showing: Manlius Art Cinema
Date of review: May 19, 2014
Encore performance: Noon Saturday, May 24
Ticket prices: Regular $18, senior $15
Information: ManliusArtCinema.com

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