Mendes relationship with Simon Russell Beale, who plays Lear, has been longstanding since 2000. Russell Beale’s Lear descends from an officious authoritarian leader, (who, although, is a short man has a powerful presence that speaks volumes beyond his height,) to an insane naked hospital patient who wears a straw hat and carries a bag of flowers; he suffering from dementia.
The beginning scene is a stately affair, in the presence of military men, where Lear divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters, yet Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) defies her father’s request for praise and love which drives him into a tantrum frenzy as he stomps across the stage. Vinall, however, plays an outspoken and unwavering Cordelia quite different to docile and self-effacing versions of Cordelia often portrayed, yet his parading of her on top of a chair to embarrass her is early signs of his sanity soon-to-be doomed.
Anthony Ward’s injection of digital grey cloud screens made the ominous tone of the play even scarier and his use of an elevated platform, which brought Lear and the fool towards the turbulent thunderous skies, was an innovative device necessary in any version of ‘King Lear.’
Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) play the catty, evil sisters, similarly dressed in colour, sexiness and skintight wear to enchant and bewitch the men of power; Lear, their husbands, and their own half brother, Edmund, who they both – unknowingly – have affairs with to get their way. Yet there are other sinister and darker hues of immorality which pervade Mendes stage such as an incestuous relationship between Lear and Regan, as he often smack her bottom, and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Michael Nardone) use of a cork screw to pluck out the eyes of loyal and merciful Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) which left viewers gasping from the, somewhat realistic, blood as they hid behind their hands. A unique touch of Mendes was added when Lear killed his fool (Adrian Scarborough,) with an iron bar who delivered woeful singing to his Shakespearean lines of half-truths as he subtly warned Lear to be, ‘nothave been old before thou hadst been wise.’ It is a unexpectedly shocking scene to see the innocent fool dead in a bath tub by the hands of the one he had most concern for, yet Russell Beale’s Lear is full of contradictions; he looks back at the bloodied body and whimpers as he had forgotten that he taken his fool’s life.
Sam Troughton as the bastard son, Edmund, plays an erudite half brother, but a hypocrite (no less,) whose charismatic monologues make him a great fit for the role. Yet Tom Brooke’s Edgar only becomes convincing towards the end of Act 2 with the accompaniment of his blind father, Gloucester. From the moment Brooke enters the stage, he presents a naive and uncertain Edgar; unsure of himself and, possibly, his own place in the play which is, sadly, felt by the audience. Gloucester and Edgar’s relationship is a parody of the lack of familial love shared with Lear and his daughters, and it is perhaps Brooke’s mistake to emphasise this as oppose to focusing, a little more, on the deeper elements of Edgar’s character.