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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Maxwell Martin’

I was SO excited when I saw the combination: “Sam Mendes”, “Simon Russell Beale” and “King Lear” at the beginning of the year: excited enough to go right ahead and book tickets for four nights, in various combinations.
When the time came for the first visit (with Old Friend at Work and her husband) there had been a few early, snipey comments about how the production “Missed greatness by a whisper” (I think that particularly useless observation came from “The Sunday Times”) and so on, but I was still in a state of breathless over-excitement by the time we walked into The Olivier Theatre at The National.
The stage looked good: huge moon suspended over a blank set, with modern, stark props. Good. This was going to be good, I thought.
Well, it was, pretty much. Simon Russell Beale is (I think rightly) lauded as the best Shakespearean actor that we have, and so his Lear was never going to be a non-event. Every one of the four times I saw it, I was in floods of tears (embarrassing but true) for the first time each night at precisely the same point: “Oh let me not be mad. Not mad.” Whether this was a Pavlovian conditioning after the first couple of times, I don’t know – but I still think it’s a pretty strong endorsement of the man’s talent to be able to do that to a forty-three year-old father of three. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen – because Ian Holm is the best I have ever seen, and I am pretty confident that I will never see a better – but it was certainly a major piece of work.
Other good things were Edmund and Edgar: both excellent; and Gloucester and Kent – also terrific. There was a brilliant decision to have – spoiler alert – Lear murder The Fool in his madness in the joint stool scene, exhausted and maddened and apparently forgetting what he had done until the end of the play; and there were any other smart line readings and ideas that kept the production fizzing along. Now and then, there were moments that only The National Theatre could do: the huge number of extras who made up Lear’s army and retinue, dwindling as the play progressed, really did seem, at the start of the play to number one hundred. The Leninesque statue that dominated the courtyard outside Goneril’s home was sturdy enough to have a man chained to it and for it to seem as though it was an utterly immoveable thing. The rushes that encircled the back of the stage, revealed as Act Five began were dense and high – an effective screen for soldiers and medical staff to trample through.
On the downside, nearly every scene involving the daughters was pretty bad. The opening scene, from which everything flows and which needs to make absolute sense, was performed at such a lick that almost everything was missed – even Russell Beale was gabbling away and swallowing words. It became pretty obvious that some strange choices in characterisation had been made, and there was some spectacularly over-the-top acting from Anna Maxwell Martin, who is normally excellent. The “What need one?” moment that precedes “Oh reason not the need.” (to my mind, one of the cruellest things in that very cruel play) was positively chucked away – so there were a couple of disappointments there. One of the benefits of seeing it a number of times, with a number of different people was that on one occasion Anna Maxwell Martin’s understudy went on for her – and actually I preferred it. I can’t remember her name, but (even though she was obviously “following” Maxwell Martin’s interpretation) she was calmer and more restrained in her characterisation than her more famous predecessor.
I’m glad I saw it as often as I did. It’s never going to be a bad idea to watch people of that calibre perform “King Lear” – but what I’m most excited about (given that Simon Russell Beale is in his early 50s) is the anticipation of his next Lear.

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