Simon Russell Beale is a powerful Lear, and Mendes’s production revolves on the tensions of power. In a Sunday Times interview, Mendes points to the political chaos Cordelia unleashes in her refusal to play the game of public flattery. ‘I think the key to the play is, if you can create an environment where, when Cordelia says “Nothing”, she is not only beginning the process that destroys a family, but beginning to destroy a nation and start a war, the play operates on all levels.’
This production certainly uses many levels, by virtue of the drum revolve machinery, which coincidentally was the focus of the Guardian’s obituary of its designer, Richard Brett, which appeared in the week the play opened. The sheer size of the cast and Mendes’s vision point in the direction of ambitions of the rising and the falling.
For all that, the production did not ‘grab’ me. A friend asked if it were because I had seen too many productions: three on stage in the past six months. Still, there has been much in it to discuss. Not the least being if each of those who made up the supernumerary cast had followed Olivier’s advice: ‘If the character is nameless, the actor should give himself a name. He should give himself a family, a background, a past. Where was he born, what did he have for breakfast?’ After more imaginative tasks, he says, ‘If the actor brings on with him a true belief in himself, we should be able to look at him at any moment during the action and see a complete three-dimensional figure and not a cardboard cut-out. To transport an audience, they must see life and not paste.’
There is plenty of life in Simon Russell Beale’s Lear. How much chance the others get to live is, I suppose, up to them.