Review: King Lear (NT Live)

2014-05-01 18.59.19For those of us who can’t easily pop across the pond, NT Live had a virtual alternative: a recording of King Lear, currently at the National Theatre in London. If you missed the screening, it’ll be on again at BAM on May 31.

Initial reaction: Simon Russell Beale, you are a motormouth, sir. I say that in the most complimentary way. I was dumbstruck at how he can wrap his tongue around Shakespeare’s elaborate text, and so quickly. Almost too fast. By the time I had digested one thing he’d said, he was three steps ahead of me. His take on Lear was that of a man suffering from a physically and mentally degenerative disease (he said in the intermission documentary that he was trying to portray something akin to Parkinson’s). He was terrific, though you expect nothing less from the guy. Sam Mendes’ production was set in some kind of modern totalitarian state, and featured stunning visuals and an absolutely enormous cast. If the first act dragged a bit (maybe that’s just something I’ll have to get used to with Lear) the second act was totally spellbinding.

The production was pretty clearly the best of the three King Lears I’ve seen this year (the BAM and the TFANA are the others), but of course it was on video, and that always makes it lose a few notches. Actually it makes a production lose a load of notches. It’s great to have access to absolutely marvelous performances that you’d never be able to see otherwise.  But (and I know this is incredibly obvious) it’s so much less interesting than real theater is that it’s almost not even worth it. Watching a baseball game at a bar can be just as fun as watching at the game at a stadium (and I should know). Theater isn’t really like that. A few reasons off the top of my head:

  • The visuals don’t quite come through as well: When I saw the sets I thought “Oh I bet that looks GREAT in person.”
  • I like being able to choose what to look at myself. Stop bossing me around, camera crew!
  • The audience tends to be more responsive when they’re in the same room as the performers are.
  • You don’t get the visceral physical reactions (that eyeball scene! Out vile jelly indeed) that you would if you were seeing it live.

On that note, I don’t understand the appeal of something like the upcoming NT Live production of The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime, which is also coming to Broadway in the fall. Why on earth would you pay $25 to see a show you could see in the flesh in six months? Why would you ever want to see War Horse on video? It played here for ages! It’s on tour! I’m mystified.

On the other hand, I suppose I’m thinking of this as an incredibly privileged person would. (“But it’s not even WORTH it to fly coach. Just go first class!”) I get to see a lot of theater, and have lost all concept of what life is like when you have to make a monumental effort to go see a show. This wasn’t always the case. When I was a theater-obsessed teenager, I’d often have to wait TWO YEARS before getting to see a new musical at the Fox in St. Louis. I’d have flipped out if I could have seen a screening of Sunset Boulevard or Titanic right when they opened on Broadway. Though musicals are rarely filmed for TV anyway, so perhaps that’s an uneven comparison. Who knows though — maybe NT Live will inspire a similar theater-at-the-movies series over here for all those theater-obsessed types that can’t go see shows regularly. Well, it works for opera.