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National Theatre, London SE1
More than any other of Shakespeare's plays, this great symphonic drama of the human condition has mirrored each successive age, often unbearably, with its own self-image.
Our own nihilistic day, obsessed with media accounts of what seems the dissolution of both civilised society and personal relationships, finds its ugly reflection in Sam Mendes's eagerly awaited production.
From the opening, when Simon Russell Beale's ageing dictator enters his conference chamber walled with his own military imperial guard, we recognise a common scene of power and insecurity.
Ordered to express the degree of their affection for their unlovable father, his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, outbid one another in their amplified, effusive offerings and are duly rewarded with his divided kingdom.
Only Olivia Vinall's Cordelia refuses defiantly to play the game and consequently is violently cast off. This is the cue for the first of Beale's frenetic rages, a state which constantly marks his downward spiral into a dementia fuelled by the treatment from his favoured offspring.
Beale's Lear is a definitive portrayal of a man progressively stripped of power over others and control of his own identity - "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" he asks.
And, as he slowly loses his mind, with the pitiful plea of "Let me not be mad," his is an increasingly shambling figure, nervously pawing at a troublesome hip.
The last vestiges of his authority are lost as his substantial personal bodyguard slip away into the night.
Unlike Hamlet, where we see events subjectively through the protagonist's eyes, in King Lear we watch with a horrible objective fascination and even fear.
This is not only Lear's world it is ours. The parallel Gloucester plot, in which betrayal and physical cruelty deny family bonds, make Shakespeare's universal intentions clear.
Mendes squeezes the play dry of any comfort, with the normally moving conclusion rejigged to expunge any medieval heroics - no mummers' challenge and barnstorming duel between good and evil here. Edgar simply stabs his bastard half-brother in revenge for his own and his father's betrayal.
A huge cast gives the impression that at times Lear has all of his 100 knights on stage and there are excellent supporting performnces.
Sam Troughton's Edmund is the budding, suavely suited potential corporation man while his brother, Tom Brooke's Edgar, is a student drop-out who shows perhaps an understandably muted sympathy for their blinded father, Stephen Boxer's naive Gloucester.
The demonic daughters, Kate Fleetwood's Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin's Regan, are equally differentiated, the former cunningly calculating, while the latter comes across as hysterically high on cruelty.
Adrian Scarborough as the Fool for once makes the character's often meaningless babble analytically clear as he dissects Lear's condition, only to be unknowingly clubbed to death by his master in one of his demented frenzies.
If the production loses something in subtlety it certainly speaks uncompromisingly to its audience.
Runs until May 28. Box office: (020) 7252-3000.
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