When an ageing king decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, according to which of them is most eloquent in praising him, his favourite, Cordelia, says nothing.
Simon Russell Beale, whose recent appearances at Britain's National Theatre include Timon in Timon of Athens and Stalin in Collaborators, turns King Lear into a modern-day despot in the latest NT Live production.
He is reunited with director and Academy Award winner Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty).
This production of Shakespeare's timeless tragedy is performed at the Olivier Theatre, and is set in a present-day totalitarian state, with Lear surrounded by a huge armed guard.
Beale is supported by some of the National's best veteran and younger actors, including Kate Fleetwood (Goneril), Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Olivia Vinall (Cordelia), Stanley Townsend (Kent), Stephen Boxer (Gloucester), Tom Brooke (Edgar) and Sam Troughton (Edmund), with Adrian Scarborough as the Fool.
Anthony Ward's set consists of moving screens with a long ramp projecting into the stalls. Paul Pyant helps to define the space with his lighting design.
This is a drama about politics as well as a disintegrating dysfunctional family.
Lear suffers from confusion and paranoia, and deludes himself into thinking that by dividing his realm, he may still control it.
Shakespeare was treading dangerously when he staged this play about a king wanting to parcel out his kingdom to his children, at a time when King James I wanted to unite Britain.
Like James, Lear is a king who thrives on flattery.
King Lear was based on a play by an anonymous author called Chronicle History of King Lear, which has a happy ending.
In Shakespeare's version, the characters die in a cheerless, dark world, and it has the most heartbreaking ending of all the Bard's plays.
Kings are heroes in Shakespeare's plays when they humble themselves to the needs of their people.
By presenting Lear as an unsympathetic character, Shakespeare conveys to the audience the notion that there is equality in suffering.
A monarch has to be reduced to a destitute, homeless state before he can see the truth about himself and his place among humanity.
King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Mendes, NT Live Production, 3 hrs 37 mins (includes interval), State Cinema; Sunday, June 15, 12.30pm, Monday, June 16, 5pm, Wednesday, June 18, 11am. Adults $25, seniors/children $20.
- The Nelson Mail