Academy Award® winner Sam Mendes (James Bond: Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the National Theatre to direct Simon Russell Beale (Timon of Athens, Collaborators) in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy (King Lear)
The NT programme contains a fine essay by the Shakespearean scholar (and RSC governor) Jonathan Bate, who quotes W B Yeats and reproduce part in this blog.
“The history of a whole evil time” by Jonathan Bate
The great Irish poe W.B. Yeats once wrote that “We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time.” The story of Lear and his division of the kingdoms was available to Shakespeare and his audience in many different sources, including an old play and a sequence in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem of legendary British history, The Faerie Queene. Shakespeare made many changes to the story he inherited, but none was more significant than his combining of Lear’s story with that of the Earl of Gloucester. This, too, was a reworking of someone else’s story – a tale about a blind king of Paphlagonia and his two sons in Sir Philip Sidney’s hugely influential romance Arcadia – but what is uniquely Shakespearean is the yoking of the two stories in a double plot. As the action progresses, the parallel lines converge: Lear chooses the wrong daughters, Gloucester the wrong son, and in the great scene above Dover cliff the mad man and the blind one come together to find wisdom about the way of the world.
It is this meeting above all that makes us see the play as “the history of a whole evil time,” a dramatisation not just of one man’s error but of civilization pushed to the brink of destruction. “Is this the promised end?” asks Kent. “Or image of that horror?” replies Edgar. We are on the brink of apocalypse. What is it that drives Lear to madness? The loss of his kingdom or the cruelty of his daughters? A wise critic in the eighteenth century argued that “Lear would move our compassion but little, did we not rather consider the injured father than the degraded king. “At one level, anyone with a family can sympathise with the dilemma possed by the play: is it the responsability of children, with families and careers of their own, to care for an aged widowed parent as dementia begins to set in? At another level, this is a lay about high politics and the renunciation of power. In that respect, the ideal audience member might be an ex-Prime Minister, ex-Chief Executive or, say, the retired head of some venerable institution such as an Oxford College: it’s not easy suddenly to step down, if one has been used to years of deference and decision-making. (Text by Jonathan Bate)
King Lear will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 1 May 2014 by National Theatre Live. Find out more here: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/king-lear