King Lear

Written by:
Bob Wake
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Filmed in 1998, this adroit BBC/WGBH-Boston production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear is of particular note for preserving Ian Holm’s celebrated stage performance in the title role. Stellar interpreters of Lear haven’t always been so fortunate. Laurence Olivier was frail and in ill health by the time he was brought before the cameras for a 1984 television adaptation. Paul Scofield was in prime form for the 1971 film version, but his powerful acting was undermined by Peter Brook’s dreary stylized direction. Orson Welles fell victim to television’s infancy in 1953 when he played Lear in an absurdly truncated 73-minute teleplay—complete with boom-mike shadows and wobbly cardboard sets—coincidentally directed by a much younger Peter Brook. When asked about the severely chopped-down script, Welles replied at the time: “The central story will still be there. That’s all people remember anyhow.”

Ian Holm’s King Lear is significantly trimmed, too, but at two-and-a-half hours the play’s structure and thematic threads remain clearly delineated. More importantly, the director (Richard Eyre) and the strong supporting cast are retained from the 1997 Royal National Theatre stage production. While not “opened up” in the full cinematic sense, stagebound claustrophobia is minimized by the use of expressionistic studio sets and fluid editing. Early scenes inside Lear’s castle are torch-lit and have a sepulchral eeriness that seems keyed to the King’s line, “I think the world’s asleep.” Walls, floors, and sheet-draped furniture are all bathed in a lurid orange hue. We feel ourselves submerged in a kind of pagan no-man’s-land from which reason and sanity have departed.

Scholars have speculated about the play’s desolate worldview and brutal pessimism. Is King Lear simply reflective of Jacobean fatalism or is Shakespeare revealing something of his own personal despair in the chilling poetry of “pent-up guilts” and “climbing sorrow”? What has never been in dispute is the universality of Lear’s profoundly crippled and cross-wired relationship with his three daughters. His vain misreading of Regan and Goneril’s condescension is matched only by his blindness to Cordelia’s respect. “Things must change or cease,” we’re told by a passing gentleman on the heath, where Lear soon encounters his own elemental truth. Change finally comes to the old King’s heart, although his sweetest speech to Cordelia is delivered as the two of them are led away to prison. Reconciliations are grievously delayed or undercut by misery and violence throughout King Lear. Awash in corpses, the play ends with slim differentiation between “to change” and “to cease.”

A controversial aspect of Holm’s performance was the decision to strip naked during the storm scene. The gesture is implicit in the text: “Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.” In fact, it’s remarkable that no Lear before Holm felt compelled to give us a Shakespearean full monty. If the moment was startling on stage, the teleplay is too carefully restrained. While not exactly censored, the nudity is all but unnoticeable from a distance in dim light, heavy rain, and the skittish lens of a handheld camera. Worse, the thunderous sound effects drown out much of the dialogue. (Seasoned “Masterpiece Theatre” fans may wish to have a copy of the play at hand; the storm can be found in Act III, Scene IV.)

As he has shown in his movie roles, Ian Holm is the purest of conduits for the behaviors and motivations of the characters he plays. Whether portraying button-down negligence attorney Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter, or Greenwich Village gadfly Joe Gould in Joe Gould’s Secret, Holm disappears into his roles with thorough self-effacement. His Lear is naturalistic and devoid of theatrical cant. We’re reminded that Shakespeare’s language needn’t be forcibly gnawed to work its effects. In scenes where Holm is matched with a similarly unfussy performer, such as Victoria Hamilton playing Cordelia, the results can be extraordinary. A highlight of the production is Lear awakening (Act IV, Scene VII) and saying, “Do not laugh at me;/ For, as I am a man, I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia.” His daughter’s response—“And so I am, I am”—is a rare moment of lucid beauty in an angry landscape. Holm and Hamilton bring a breathtaking poignancy to the scene.

The Fool in King Lear is a gnomic and often misunderstood presence. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shortened versions of the play omitted the character altogether. Although the role has been reduced for this production, it has also been daringly reconfigured. Rather than a manic young whippersnapper—as the character is commonly acted—Michael Bryant plays the Fool as a decrepit hanger-on as ancient and tired as Lear himself. Bryant is like a dyspeptic vaudevillian gamely firing zingers from the dais at a Friars Club roast. It’s an inspired idea and hints that Lear and his Fool have accompanied one another into a bitter late-life. Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” When the Fool responds, “Lear’s shadow,” we suspect that the Fool has known Lear long enough to mourn the King’s ignoble decline.

Shakespeare crafted one of literature’s great parallel narratives in the story of Gloucester and his two sons, the calculating bastard Edmund and the steadfast Edgar. The subplot mirrors and enlarges the drama of Lear’s clash with his daughters. Actor Paul Rhys interprets Edgar as callow and disengaged during the play’s opening scenes, which is effective in two ways: it makes Edgar a believably easy mark for the duplicitous Edmund, and it allows room for Edgar’s transformation in his dark-night-of-the-soul on the heath. Edmund is played with sleek menace by the aptly named Finbar Lynch, who also brings a rapacious eroticism to his scenes with Goneril (Barbara Flynn) and Regan (Amanda Redman). Anyone familiar with King Lear will want to know how the production handles the blinding of Gloucester (Timothy West) by the barbarous Cornwall (Michael Simkins). It’s gruesome stuff and suggests that PBS operates under the same double standard as commercial television: Gloucester’s punctured eye sockets oozing blood are apparently more acceptable viewing than Lear’s blessed nakedness.

Bob Wake

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