Another day, another Lear. But, although this is the third production I've seen in the past seven months, it is quite exceptional. It combines a cosmic scale with an intimate sense of detail and is neither imprisoned by an intellectual concept nor by an actor's temperament. Instead you feel the director, Sam Mendes, and the Lear, Simon Russell Beale, are working with everyone else to explore every nook and cranny of the play.
It starts impressively. Lear's division of his kingdom is not some idle whim but a huge public ceremony executed by a man who looks very much a military dictator. A vast crowd of extras line the room which only adds to Lear's sense of outrage at the thwarting of his will by the disobliging Cordelia. As if to emphasise his fury, Russell Beale's bullet-headed Lear humiliates Cordelia by forcing her to stand on a chair like a naughty schoolgirl before she is rescued by the French king. Yet although the scene has an epic quality, it is filled with human detail. Adrian Scarborough's Fool, who squats downstage on the Japanese-style hanimichi (or runway) that extends into the stalls, rushes up to lovingly embrace Cordelia before she is bundled off.
This mixture of the epic and the intimate runs right through the production. As in Peter Brook's legendary 1962 version, Lear is accompanied on his travels by a train of riotous knights whom his daughters are loth to entertain: understandably when they hurl a huge stag onto the middle of Goneril's dining table. At the same time you see the petty malevolence of Goneril in the way she removes Lear's slippers from his favourite place. There is something epic about the fact that the loyal Kent is enchained under a heroic, Soviet-like statue of Lear in his days of power. Yet later there is a distressing intimacy to the fact that Gloucester is blinded by his abusive guests in his own wine cellar.
But if any big idea emerges from this production, it is that Lear is a play of insane contradictions. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," says one character. "The gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us," says another. Shakespeare presents us with a world with no rhyme nor reason, no pattern of divine justice. And rather than impose a false coherence on the play, Mendes seems ready to embrace its manifest opposites.
You see this in Russell Beale's extraordinary Lear. He has all the aspects of a Stalinesque tyrant and struts around with his massive head thrust forward as if about to devour anyone who crosses him. Yet he also inspires love and affection in Kent, Gloucester and the Fool and possesses a self-knowledge that enables him to heartbreakingly say of Cordelia, while squatting on a suitcase, "I did her wrong." Russell Beale also brings out the moment-by-moment contradictions within Lear.
He swears he will never see Goneril again: a second later he cries "but yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter" and his hand tentatively reaches out to touch her.
The supreme example of Russell Beale's ability to explore the senselessness in Shakespeare's play occurs in the hovel scene. There is a wild comedy to the moment when Russell Beale's Lear, padding around in his underpants, affects to put Goneril and Regan on trial while staring at an upended tea-urn and a lavatory bowl. But suddenly the deranged Lear takes an iron bar to the Fool and batters him to death. It is truly shocking because it is so brutal, unexpected and without sense given Lear's love for the Fool.
Russell Beale is a magnetic and unorthodox Lear. But his is only one of many fine performances that overturn expectation. Stanley Townsend makes Kent an aggressive bully-boy rather than the usual pious worthy while Stephen Boxer's Gloucester has the diffidence of the middle-rank courtier. Sam Troughton's Edmund hides his villainy under a mask of scholarly respectability and Tom Brooke does all he can with the near-unplayable Edgar: why, I always wonder, does he not reveal himself to the tormented Gloucester? Kate Fleetwood's quietly venomous Goneril is also perfectly contrasted with Anna Maxwell Martin's extrovert and hysterically cruel Regan.
Slightly fussy staging makes the play's ending less moving than I have known it. But this is a small blot on a production that is well designed by Anthony Ward and that is packed with illuminating detail yet never loses the sense of narrative sweep. There are times when I feel that Lear is a play that has to be endured as much as enjoyed.
But Mendes's production and Russell Beale's performance sharpen our understanding of Shakespeare's analysis of human folly and the primacy of contradictory feeling over calm rationality.