NT Live: King Lear

How do you create a fresh King Lear? Not only is Shakespeare’s epic tragedy one of the most frequently staged of the bard’s plays; it is perhaps the most harrowing, the most searching, the most exhausting to watch

Venue: Vue Cinema, Leeds
Rating: ****

How do you create a fresh King Lear? Not only is Shakespeare’s epic tragedy one of the most frequently staged of the bard’s plays; it is perhaps the most harrowing, the most searching, the most exhausting to watch.

I was unusually quite pleased at being a relative Lear novice when watching National Theatre Live’s broadcast of Michael Grandage’s production in Leeds, on a terribly tempestuous Thursday night. I would not realise the irony of such a tempest until the production was dramatically cut at the crux of the scene in which Gloucester’s eyes are gauged out. But my lack of knowledge about the play allowed for a truly bracing experience, as I sat unaware of what to expect from a Lear performance. I was not disappointed. I am pretty confident that my first experience of Lear will remain the best I ever see.

The austerity of Christopher Oram’s stage design constructs an immediately desolate and cold backdrop, and lets Shakespeare’s words resound more powerfully from the stage. The musical score and strategic lighting seared from the screen and created an almost cinematic sheen to the performance. Whilst sitting through the first half in Vue’s over-crowded, slightly cramped screen, I was totally engulfed in the production, almost forgetting I was sat in a cinema and not in Donmar Warehouse itself. For theatre and cinema-goers alike, the experience is a must; never before has the performance of Shakespeare from stage to screen seemed more ambiguous, which only worked to emphasise the drama and the despair of the text.

Derek Jacobi’s Lear starts as a predictably patriarchal, robust and uncompromising character, before descending into an unmatchable sea of madness. The intensity of Jacobi’s performance, where Lear’s physical deterioration is clear in not only his dress and physique, but his sunken eyes and voice, is difficult to forget. Watching Jacobi’s high-pitched, extreme scream as he tumbles on his knees onto the white-washed wooden planks of the stage tells the story of a timeless and – if possible – more intricate Lear.

The technical hitch, which saw hundreds of cinema audiences across the country braced for the climax of the play, certainly set the show back as the actors were bustled backstage and re-emerged to repeat the truncated scene with some repetition and noticeably stilted lines. It was a serious shame after the beauty and consistency of the prior scenes, but not a death sentence.

National Theatre Live is a truly exciting venture: it is able to fuse the creative gap between theatre and cinema, creating a remarkably innovative new artistic medium. Thursday night’s performance proved this to outstanding effect; despite the tempest.

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