King Lear is, typically, a leading actor's date with destiny: one of those titanic roles that they aspire to playing one day – but not too soon. When Derek Jacobi took the part at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago, he told one interviewer: "If you've got ambitions to do the classics, you jump the Hamlet hoop. And then when you're old you do the Lear hoop. I've always felt slightly young for it." But at the age of 72, he finally felt ready: "I just feel that I needed to be older. Not necessarily to look older, but to feel older. To feel closer to the man."
And right now, Frank Langella – born, like Jacobi, in 1938, and who is now 76 – is reprising the role in a production in New York that has transferred from Chichester Festival Theatre.
So the first thing to say about Simon Russell Beale, who of course has already jumped through the Hamlet hoop (and also the Macbeth, Richard III, Leontes, Iago, Malvolio, Benedick, Ariel and Timon of Athens ones, amongst others), is that at just 53 he isn't quite the usual vintage, age-wise, that the role usually demands to star in the National's thrilling new production; but his pedigree is unassailable.
And, being a great character actor rather than a typical leading man, he has a chameleon-like ability to transcend his own distinctive physicality to appear totally transformed; in this case, a beefy, powerful man who seems to shrink visibly over the course of the evening as madness and grief engulf him.
As when he played Stalin, also at the National (first in the Cottesloe, then the Olivier, in John Hodge's Collaborators in 2011), Beale is a strutting dictator at first, ruling his kingdom with an iron fist – one which he uses to commit a savage onstage murder later on (unspecified in the text, but appropriate given the play's other acts of serial savagery). But there are also early signs of vulnerability in the slightly hobbling gait of his walk.
But if the key to Beale's performance is his amazing physicality, he also has the instinctive musicality of a true Shakespearean actor to transform the speeches into arias of pain and feeling.
Reunited with director Sam Mendes, who has directed him in many Shakespearean (and non-Shakespearean) triumphs before, they achieve a remarkable fluency: the staging is both epic and intimate. Mendes, as demonstrated of course by his work on the Bond film Skyfall and the current West End musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is not intimidated by scale, but he's also able to shrink a stage as wide and an auditorium as deep as the Olivier into a more intimate arena, thanks partly to Anthony Ward's superb set of moving screens that has a long ramp projecting into the stalls and Paul Pyant's space-defining lighting.
Though Mendes is at the helm, the production is also - in the current house style of the National's Nick Hytner – in modern dress, lending it a contemporary urgency. And Mendes and his casting director Wendy Spon have assembled around Beale some of the National's best veteran and younger actors alike, including Stanley Townsend (Kent), Stephen Boxer (Gloucester), Adrian Scarborough (Fool), Kate Fleetwood (Goneril), Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Olivia Vinall (Cordelia), Sam Trughton (Edmund) and Tom Brook (Edgar). They are also startlingly augmented by some 30 extras for crowd scenes.
Tickets will inevitably be hard to come by for its run at the National, but it will also be broadcast live to 500 cinemas and many others worldwide as part of NT Live on May 1. It is not to be missed.
"There is much to admire but also moments that seem overblown and at times downright perverse."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"... the production is, for the most part, thrillingly well-played ... Strongly recommended."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Mendes's production and Russell Beale's performance sharpen our understanding of Shakespeare's analysis of human folly and the primacy of contradictory feeling over calm rationality."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Mr Russell Beale is rightly held in affection. But at 53 is he old enough to be a Lear? Can he create sufficient sense of royalty and command? Not for me, alas."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"... the scenes of anguish, violence and despair are stunningly achieved."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard