sun 14/04/2024

King Lear, BBC Two review - modernised TV adaptation is a mixed blessing | reviews, news & interviews

King Lear, BBC Two review - modernised TV adaptation is a mixed blessing

King Lear, BBC Two review - modernised TV adaptation is a mixed blessing

A towering Anthony Hopkins just about saves the day

Losing control: Anthony Hopkins as King Lear

Some have contended that King Lear is unstageable, and perhaps it’s unfilmable too.

Richard Eyre‘s new version for the BBC sets Shakespeare’s most remorselessly bleak tragedy in a pseudo-modern Britain where historic stately homes co-exist with urban squalor and a ruthlessly militaristic nobility, but despite its strength-in-depth cast it ends up as less than the sum of its parts.

Although it’s unusual to find King Lear opening with nighttime scenes of a glittering, contemporary City of London, including the Tower thereof, it’s difficult to feel that this setting helps us to better understand Shakespeare’s story of feudal bloodletting and ferocious familial infighting. As the story progresses, the idea of a crippling civil war ripping asunder our septic isle is supposed to be evoked by stock shots of jet aircraft, artillery, Apache helicopters and violent firefights in a blighted suburbia, but all this is really just a distraction from the language where the play’s various truths lie. It's like updating operas by Handel or Mozart – you can transport them to fascist Italy or a ski resort in Colorado, but the music will insist on telling its own story in its own voice.

King LearEyre’s smartest move was recruiting Anthony Hopkins for the title role, and the combustible Welshman takes it to the limit. His face battered and pocked like an aerial photograph of the battlefields of the Somme, his Lear is irascible, irrational, pugnacious, and not used to having his slightest whim contradicted. He has a particular way of pronouncing the word “love”, turning it into two syllables and making it sound more like a blunt instrument than a term of endearment.

He sucks up the oleaginous flattery of daughters Goneril and Regan – and what else would he expect after inviting them to take part in an obsequiousness contest in order to be awarded chunks of his kingdom? – but the prim insistence of Cordelia (Florence Pugh) that she will “love your majesty according to my bond, no more, no less” drives the old tyrant into a stupendous rage. Cordelia is banished, which puts paid to her planned marriage to the Duke of Burgundy (who, perplexingly, is dressed like the king of Matabeleland, presumably in accordance with some BBC diversity directive). Kent (a pleasingly avuncular Jim Carter) also finds himself cast out by the despotic Lear when he bluntly tells the sovereign that “thou dost evil”.

Lear’s journey into madness is the play’s key signature, but where this version scores highest is in treating Lear’s morbid decline as a progression through the clinical stages of dementia. The irrational rages, failure to recognise familiar comrades, and the torrent of vile abuse he heaps on Regan when she’s none too enthusiastic about inviting him and his entourage to crash at her place indefinitely are symptoms which will be painfully familiar to many, and his desperate line “Oh let me not be mad” intimates that he’s not entirely oblivious to his condition. "Thou shouldst not have been old til thou hadst been wise," the Fool (Karl Johnson) tells him.

King LearI don’t know the original text well enough to spot where Eyre has made cuts, but Cordelia’s role feels oddly truncated – she barely seems to have registered in the viewer’s consciousness before Lear is dragging her corpse across the stage in a sack and delivering “thoul’t come no more”, very touchingly it must be said. The evil daughters fare better, with Emma Thompson’s Goneril (pictured above) reminiscent of a predatory and contemptuous Agatha Christie murderess and Emily Watson (pictured above left) bringing some Moors Murderers sadism to Regan. And there’s some surprising light relief from, of all people, Christopher Eccleston, who plays Oswald with a camp skittishness hilariously at odds with his reputation for dour obsessiveness.

Still, there are episodes in Lear which will remain problematic whatever you do with them. The bizarre moment when poor, blinded Gloucester (Jim Broadbent) isn’t sure whether or not he has fallen off a high cliff on the Kent coast doesn’t so much beggar belief as make you wonder if Shakespeare got pranked by a rival playwright. Elsewhere, the modernised setting brings more bathos than pathos. Gloucester’s progress to Dover, aided by his prodigal son Edgar (a slightly-too-hysterical Andrew Scott), finds the two of them wandering along beside what must presumably be the A2, as trucks and Ford Focuses whizz past incongruously. The “blasted heath” has become a disused quarry, while depicting the crazed, destitute Lear as a homeless man pushing a supermarket trolley full of rubbish round a shopping precinct in Dover is a kitchen sink too far.

Ian McKellen brings his Chichester Lear to the West End in July. I daresay it will make an instructive comparison.

The crazed, destitute Lear as a homeless man pushing a supermarket trolley full of rubbish is a kitchen sink too far


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Hilarious! I enjoyed reading this review more than watching the programme itself!

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