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Michael Coveney: King Lear sponsors, stand-ins and other shout-outs

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Simon Russell Beale in King Lear
© Mark Douet

Simon Russell Beale's last Shakespearean performance at the National, Timon of Athens, was a brilliantly sarcastic update on the relationship between artists and sponsors, with Timon turning on his first night wealthy socialites and canape crunchers by joining the Occupy London movement which protested against the venal city banking systems that nearly ruined us completely a few years ago.

So it's cheering to see normal service resumed at the National, with Julius Baer, the Swiss private banking group, gratefully credited as sole sponsor of Sam Mendes' vividly depressing production of King Lear in the Olivier and Russell Beale's engaging, luminously intelligent occupancy of the title role. At the end of the play, the Duke of Albany declares that our present business is general woe, and that Kent and Edgar should rule in this realm and "the gored state sustain."

Kent bows out on that one, and Edgar looks completely washed up. It's a nightmare situation, not unlike what's going on in the Ukraine at this very moment. What's needed is a resurgence of political will and, above all else, some green shoots of economic recovery. And more sponsors.

No such thing as Julius Baer in those days, unfortunately, a company which prides itself on being "the leading Swiss private banking group, focusing exclusively on the demands of sophisticated private clients, family offices and external asset managers from around the world." It's a wonderful, grown-up irony that such a company should finance a play of moral and political meltdown. That's how the world goes. I also bumped into my friend Madeleine Hodgkin, investment director at another private bank, at last night's opening. She's a big NT donor, and very active in the NT future capital campaign.

Like everyone else, she was delighted to see Sam Troughton fully recovered from his mystery dumbness on Tuesday night, when his voice went AWOL in the middle of the preview and Edmund was played in the second half by his understudy, Paapa Essiedu, otherwise engaged as the Duke of Burgundy.

The NT programme contains a fine essay by the Shakespearean scholar (and RSC governor) Jonathan Bate, who quotes W B Yeats as saying, "We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time." This sets the theme for an argument that fits Sam Mendes' production with almost uncanny accuracy, as though bespoke.

But there's one extra detail of particular perception on the stage history of Lear. Charles Lamb wrote in 1811 that the Lear of Shakespeare "cannot be acted." Bate points out that Lamb knew this was not a matter of aesthetics (although he thought of an old man tottering about the stage on a rainy night as painful and disgusting) but of politics: the madness of George III, Bate says, meant that the London managers kept this play about a deranged old king off the stage, for fear of offending the court.

The play - previous NT productions include Deborah Warner's with Brian Cox, David Hare's with Anthony Hopkins and Richard Eyre's (the best) with Ian Holm - drew its fair share of hushed gasps, nervous laughter (in the blinding scene, jellies and flesh slithering all over the place) and stifled snivels.

Adam James and Emilia Fox in Rapture, Blister, Burn
© Alastair Muir

But there was nothing to compare with the involuntary shriek of "What?!" at the Hampstead Theatre on the previous evening, when Adam James in Gina Gionfriddo's smart and snappy feminist campus play, Rapture, Blister, Burn, told his estranged wife played by Emma Fielding that he wanted to come home after resuming his old affair with her best friend.

Audience shout-outs are surprisingly rare in the theatre, certainly on opening nights, though the legendary Coral Browne was allegedly more than audible when, on being confronted with the giant phallus wheeled on at the end of Peter Brook's National production of Oedipus at the Old Vic, declared, "Well, it's no-one we know, dear."

An even earlier Brook production prompted a critic, Kenneth Tynan no less, to address the stage at the end of the anti-Vietnam war protest play, US, in which a butterfly was burnt (not a real one, though no-one knew that at the time) and the actors stood silently, accusingly, at the end. Tynan broke the silence by standing up and shouting: "Do we applaud you, or do you applaud us?"

In so doing he was rather brilliantly exposing the show's intended ambiguity, and its obvious artificiality as a political statement. It was, anyway, a more civilised intervention than that of a man near me at an early performance of Galt MacDermot's Isabel's a Jezebel at the Duchess (an unsuccessful follow-up to Hair) who replied in no uncertain terms, and full of anger, to the question of a cast member unwise enough to advance to the front of the stage and ask, "What is all this, anyway?"