Theatre review: King Lear at the National Theatre

Fresh from Skyfall triumph, Sam Mendes swaps Bond for the Bard and Daniel Craig for long-time collaborator Simon Russell Beale in a wonderfully lucid King Lear, certain to please aficionados and win over newcomers.

Mendes’s Lear is the tyrant of a totalitarian state, whose demand for filial affection comes before a literal army of onlookers. This king knows that appearance is all. One of many clever visual cues is the gradual diminishing of this army as his power is chipped away, with Lear swapping military garb for a cardigan and, most poignantly, a hospital gown.

Russell Beale is one of our great classical actors, and his typically nuanced performance is mesmerising. He battles physical decay – head thrust bullishly forward even as his back stoops – and mental, fits of terrified rage and confusion balanced with sardonic asides and stark, heartbreaking self-awareness. One moment, he embraces his dementia with childlike glee; the next, he stuns us with a sickening act of violence.

There’s sterling support from Stanley Townsend’s swaggering Kent; Sam Troughton’s petulant Edmund, swapping bureaucracy for fascism; Stephen Boxer’s wry Gloucester, a moving counterpoint to Lear; Olivia Vinall’s unusually kickass Cordelia; Kate Fleetwood’s icily exasperated Goneril; and Adrian Scarborough’s beautifully shrewd Fool.

Anna Maxwell Martin is arresting as a capricious, fur-clad Regan, but slurs the verse in her shrill delivery, while Tom Brooke’s mournful Edgar is underpowered.

Anthony Ward’s slick design accentuates the grim brutality of this universe and makes good use of the Olivier’s revolve, echoing the play’s wheel of fortune, but Lear mounting a hydraulic ramp takes this into glam rock territory. The three-hour-plus running time could be considerably reduced without such stylish indulgences.

An electrifying production that finds emotional truth without sentimentality. Mendes still has a licence to thrill.

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Until May 28. Broadcast in cinemas nationwide May 1