The great frustration with Sam Mendes’ ceremonious production of Shakespeare’s pagan tragedy is that it shapes up like it’s got something interesting to say about kingship and totalitarianism. It also promises much because it features one of the National Theatre’s most revered actors in the title role – Simon Russell Beale. And yet, much like the sexed-up nationalism in Mendes’ Bond film Skyfall this is a procession of big, empty theatrical effects.
The idea seems to be to offer a modern rendition of the play in which the old man, dividing his kingdom between his daughters, is exposed as suffering from the sort of infantile narcissism that we are supposed to associate with history’s most diabolical despots. The programme name-checks Stalin, Gaddafi, Tito and Ceausescu for comparison. Anthony Ward’s Orwellian design meanwhile mirrors the elemental brutality of Soviet architecture - including a lunking bronze statue of Russell Beale as Lear in a trench coat on a plinth in an empty piazza.
To this is added hefty doses of macho militarism. Jet planes are heard screeching across the auditorium and the occasional Chinook helicopter throbs past. Down on the ground, just like today’s political apparatchiks, Lear’s courtiers wear Savile Row suits ranging from an Ozwald Boateng to the conservative pinstripe and pocket hankies you’d expect to find in Tory HQ. Lear himself meanwhile keeps a private militia who roam about chanting rugby songs and, at one point, toss a whole deer on to their banqueting table. And, to give it yet more modern-day relevancy, when it comes to the interrogation of Lear’s ally Gloucester after the state has fallen into civil war, we get a waterboarding scene.
This is all well and good on paper but in reality these are all rote and even glib motifs. Lear’s militia for example are little more than spear carriers. Naturally they wear blue serge uniforms not cotton togas and they carry assault rifles not spears. But their role is exactly the same as the old-school stage extra: rhetorical and ceremonial. Even in the play’s most gut-wrenching scenes they are just part of the furniture – there to make the spectacle seem bigger than it really is. They are as decorative as the procession of black umbrellas that denote an impromptu funeral late on (cliché alert: it doesn’t always rain at funerals).
Some of the other anomalies and anachronisms are typical and inevitable – we are after all accustomed to switch-blades being called swords in Shakespeare plays. You can even allow the use of the Guantanamo-style hand-and-foot cuffs as ‘stocks’. But having the blinded Gloucester jogging up steps for one of his exits is an unfortunate lapse of realism, while the final sword fight between opposing brothers Edmund and Edgar is too glibly dispensed with as a dramatic inconvenience.