King Lear has long served as a public benchmark for “great acting” – the ultimate test for thespian skills. And every production since Paul Schofield and Superstar Director Peter Brook ushered in the “modern” era of stage Lears in 1962 (the film was 1971), each new Lear has to find just the right angle to make the latest production the "definitive” one. So bring on the ever-popular Simon Russell Beale and Superstar Director Sam Mendes for the big show of 2014. Rest assured the “angle” for this sell-out Lear will be there across the media. You won’t be able to see it but you certainly will hear about it.
And so it proves as Simon appears just about everywhere talking about his insight for the role this time around. Lear is defined from the outset, Simon says, by his dementia. Not Alzheimer's you understand but very specifically Dementia with Lewy Bodies. It’s the rage, the shame, the losing of words, the delusions and nightmares, the moments of lucidity and all that which give it away. Facts which Simon consulted a medical student and a geriatrician just to work this through a bit more. The result as one interviewer notices is that little physical “tic” which Simon puts into his movement, just to signal the onset of Lewy Bodies right at the start. Very clever don’t you think?
Dementia is so much of the zeitgeist that of course it would be wrong to cast any doubt over the validity or sense of seeking to diagnose a fictional King. A Lear for our times then. One where dementia is felt to add to the drama, to deepen the tragedy, to explain in some way an inevitable path downwards. So we are encouraged here (unintentionally for sure but with no less damage) to connect dementia directly with folly, with parental abuse and abuse of power, with heartless and foolish treatment by our children, with the sweep of tragedy leading to exclusion and homelessness and the eventual loss of everything. But it does deliver good copy doesn’t it?
I understand that the rules demand Simon has to find his pitch but I am shocked at how many people seem to have bought into this nonsense. Lear is a tragedy driven by the specific dynamic of a tragedy. To mix this up with a cod diagnosis cobbled together with a couple of doctors is not really on. It goes beyond something shallow to become something potentially very harmful. There are real dangers in this “dementia-spotting”. It turns a condition into a physical tic.
Lear is one of the most compelling tragedies with the whole purpose of the play being driven by the devastating inevitability and dramatic consequences of thought and action, not by the working through of a clinical condition. I know it is meant to add colour and connect Lear to a modern audience but does it really serve that audience well to wrap up the tragedy with some dementia window-dressing?
Of course Simon’s actual performance is, I have no doubt, fantastic (at least as good as his recent portrayal of Stalin - although a similar diagnosis discussed with some docs did not feature in Simon’s promotion of that production as I recall).
So the drama is generated, as it always will be, by the incredible insights in the text. The woeful injection of an early diagnosis into the mix thankfully will get overtaken by the sheer, timeless brilliance of the play. The Dementia with Lewy Bodies angle is just publicity, so relax and enjoy the show.
I wonder though whether we can just dismiss this so easily. I doubt Simon would have been so free with his use of the alleged diagnosis, to add a bit of “realism” into things, if he had actually spoken to someone with the condition.
Dementia may now be an acceptable reference point for the zeitgeist, but there is a long way to go if it is getting used as a plot hook and the media don’t even comment on the sensitivity and appropriateness of doing so.