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This is a caustic, disturbing production by Jonathan Miller that belies
the usual condemnation of BBC blandness.
Colors are deliberately desaturated, costumes are all black, interior sets have a plank-and-drape design and a Velasquez-like austerity, exteriors have little or no detail, and scenes are played out in long, tight shots that emphasize the intimacy of television vs. the distance of stage. The taping was in a much smaller studio than usual, as the big room at the BBC was being used for "Richard III" at the time. The overall impression is discomfort, deliberately.
Robert Shaw was cast as Lear, but he suddenly dropped dead at the age of 51 just before taping. It would have been something to see a certifiably mad actor play a mad king. However....
Michael Hordern has a film reputation as a doddering, comic blitherer, but in the classics he had far more range and authority, and we get to see much of it here. He is always the king, and genuinely moving in his recognition scene with Cordelia.
In addition to Hordern, many in the cast had worked with director Jonathan Miller on previous telecasts. John Bird from "Shrew" and "Timon" is here largely free of his usual comic mannerisms. Anton Lesser, good in "Troilus," is a little small as Edgar, but then so is Michael Kitchen as Edmund. Norman Rodway, excellent in "Timon," is no less so here as Gloucester. Penelope Wilton, an equivocal Desdemona, is much better here as Regan. Gillian Barge's Goneril and John Shrapnel's Kent should also be complimented. I must say Frank Middlemass's Fool eludes me. I find him too old, too solid and not always intelligible - a spirit of earth, not of air.
Jonathan Miller stated that a director's role was to react against a familiar play, not merely be a servant to it. "Lear" is by far the most subversive in his Shakespeare collection. This result is not through inexperience. Miller had directed the play on stage with Hordern and Middlemass in 1969 and for the BBC in 1975 (supposedly better, but we'll never see it). So we can assume that this 1982 production is pretty much what he wanted.
Much of the show winds up more a comment on "Lear" rather than a straightforward performance. Miller's neurology background makes the mad scenes medically grounded and often nerve-wracking. Edgar's Tom o' Bedlam scene approaches the unsettling chaos of "Marat/Sade," and crazy Lear's meeting with blind Gloucester turns into vaudeville according to Samuel Beckett.
Such treatment doesn't betray the play, but if you're looking for comfortable, pipe-and-slippers Shakespeare, this isn't the one.
If you are at all prone to rumination, this is the one that will lead you into questions about Job, the absence/silence of God, why bad things happen to good people, etc. Surely Lear shouldn't have asked that stupid question, but why is there so much collateral damage? This production is not just a drama, it's an invitation to thought, and that's always dangerous.
The greatest personification of the title role on video remains Orson Welles, in a prized relic from the Stone Age of live television. The Olivier version, with a starrier cast, a shooting schedule three times longer and a budget five times bigger than Hordern/Miller, will be the obvious choice for many. But there is much to stimulate here, for those who dare.
Michael Hordern's masterful understanding of the part, his sandpaper
his shaggy but noble head made him the perfect Lear--"every *inch* a
I first saw this production as a college freshman in 1985, and I've seen
none since that has equaled it. It should be noted that Frank Middlemass
who plays a more sympathetic and tender-hearted Fool is no less
indispensable to the success of this production. Unforgettable.
By the way, the BBC series of the complete Shakespeare plays (produced in the late 1970s to mid-80s), which is prohibitively expensive at ca. US$3700, is frequently available in American public libraries. Everyone who is able should make a point of availing themselves of the opportunity of seeing this wonderful series at least once before they die.
Let's get the niggles out of the way first - I didn't like the
performances of either Julian Curry as Cornwall (too bored) or John
Bird as Albany (ok but too John Bird). I felt some of the poetry of the
text was muffed and therefore lost power, and there was little sense of
scale - where were Lear's rowdy knights?
However, the good by far outweighs the bad. As the three daughters of Lear, Gillian Barge (Goneril), Penelope Wilton (Regan), and Brenda Blethyn (Cordelia) are all excellent. The eldest sisters are pure poison, plotting against their father and their land; while Blethyn gives the wronged youngest daughter quiet dignity. John Shrapnel made an excellent Kent, at times quarrelsome, at others lordly as became his hidden persona.
Good stuff too from John Grillo as the sneaky servant Oswald, from Anton Lesser as Edgar (and Tom a Bedlam), and from Norman Rodway as the Earl of Gloucester - the scene where he has his eyes plucked out, seen only from behind, is played very well, as are subsequent scenes with the disguised Edgar and Lear. Michael Kitchen is a fairly interesting Edmund, but looks a bit cartoonish in places, all that conspiratorial glancing at the camera.
I wasn't that keen on Frank Middlemass' take on the Fool but I have never had much patience with anyone in that part - perhaps he did what he could with some fairly poor bits of speech and action.
I've left Lear himself till last. I didn't think at first that Michael Hordern was quite right - but following the storm he comes into his own, and by the final act and scenes with Cordelia and following, he gives the character a human side that's lacking from many productions - even Olivier came short of the scene where Lear recognises he is in the presence of his youngest and much wronged daughter. It is an interesting performance that repays re-watching and a fascinating contrast to other versions available to view.
As a devotee of this play I was absolutely relieved to find this
version is expertly done. Jonathan Miller perfectly captures the dark
and brooding nature of the play with an unfussy and shadowy set and
The acting is by and large excellent, especially that of Michael Hordern who is in my mind an unrivalled King Lear out of the 7 I've seen attempt the part. He conveys the irascible, foolish and finally 'fond old man' with an absolute truthfulness, making the final scene in Act V utterly heartbreaking. Frank Middlemass, reprising his earlier role as the Fool is perfectly cast as one who can chide his master with the right level of Shakespearean humour that never becomes too telegraphed or obvious.
The roles of Kent, Gloucester, Cornwall and Albany are played again very well. John Shrapnel stands out amongst these with his level of tenderness, humour and heroic righteousness that such a part demands. The 3 sisters are played excellently by Penelope Wilton, Gillian Barge and an early Brenda Blethyn. I couldn't help thinking that there was some off-screen rivalry between Regan and Goneril, so convincing was their on-screen chemistry and sparky interaction. I hope this was fanciful, and if anything serves to illustrate how well the two actresses delivered these plum roles.
Another outstanding performance was given by Michael Kitchen as the villain Edmund. Kitchen is an excellent character actor, nowhere better exemplified than in his delivery of Edmund's terrifically Machiavellian and cruel speeches, with a wry devilry and ignobly attractive flair. Edgar's portrayal was sensitive in the main part and intelligent, but through no fault of the actor, the scenes in Act III on the heath became a little overplayed for my liking. It is however a very difficult line to tread between the portrayal of 'madness' and provoking a reaction of laughter in an audience. This would have been less of a concern in the early 17th century when the play was first performed however.
To me, this is still the definitive production and well worth obtaining a copy if you can.
When I saw this film it was on a freind's tape (He had got it off of T.V. years ago.) i really enjoyed it. It was very stirring, almost as interesting as Ian Holm's King Lear. A very good King Lear with a very strong cast. Brenda Blethyn was wonderful as was the amazing Micheal Horden. Wonderful. See it if you can.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Probably the most admired play by Shakespeare about what I will call
insanity, male insanity, real or faked. But to understand at least half
of it you have to start from the beginning and the beginning is an
absurd situation in which an old King decides to share his kingdom
between his three daughters provided they describe their love for him.
Vain old man, tyrannical, and probably seriously mentally disturbed,
probably because of his long reign since he is supposed to be over
eighty. I read that play when I was fourteen and must have traumatized
by it since it is still just as disturbing as the first time.
Three is the number of evil in Shakespeare, so three daughters is evil and evil it is since the third one, the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to declare her love for her father and to her father because love is fake when you cast it in words. He disinherits her and refuses to provide her with any dowry. She has to marry the first man who wants her without a penny. The King of France accepts her. So King Lear's kingdom is cut in two only and the condition is that on an alternating basis the two sisters, Goneril and Regan, have to host the old king and the hundred knights that are entertaining him for a month.
The old king is capricious, whimsical and tyrannical. So it does not work and the two sisters have arranged it not to work anyway. So one night he leaves alone, in fact only with his Fool, and on the heath in a storm they come across Kent and later Edgar playing a deranged character, called Tom, disguised as a mad man, and in this production half naked, though we will never see the clothed bottom half. Shakespeare had indicated that King Lear tore his clothes off and ended naked, but it is rare this character does what the stage-directions say. I have seen many solutions, once the King, other times the Fool generally played by a young actor, so why not Edgar-Tom? From there we move into a confused situation. Cordelia and the King of France arrive in Dover to rescue King Lear but the battle does not work and Cordelia, King Lear and others end up prisoners.
Shakespeare had invested another situation in the play from the very start. Gloster had two sons, a legitimate one and a half-blood illegitimate one. The illegitimate Edmund maneuvers between the two sisters Goneril and Regan, seducing them both, and he manipulates his father who ends up banning his legitimate son Edgar. This Edgar is the one playing the mad man on the heath. His father had kept some connection with King Lear and he is accused by Goneril and her husband the Duke of Albany of treason and Albany rips off his eyes but after the first eye some servants intervene to stop Albany who will prevail but he is fatally wounded and he dies after taking the second eye off.
So Edgar reappeared on the heath as a mad man and then his blind father Gloster is led to the heath. His legitimate son takes care of him, satisfies his desire to die by misleading him to what is described as a cliff, but is not, and he falls to the earth. Then Edgar reclaims his identity and takes care of his father. That's when a messenger comes along from one sister to the other. He is killed and the letter he carries reveals that one sister was planning to have the other killed.
After the scene of the meeting of King Lear and Cordelia in her camp before the battle, we move to the victorious camp of the two sisters, with only one husband, the Duke of Cornwall who is a rather meek person, and Edmund. Edgar, disguised as some king of pilgrim arrives and delivers the recuperated letter of his wife or her sister to Cornwall who discovers the duplicity of his wife with Edmund and her sister. The confrontation of Cornwall and the sisters is in the process of becoming difficult when Edgar reappears with a mask and dressed like a knight. He challenges his half brother Edmund and he wounds him mortally. Before dying he speaks and Edgar reveals himself. The two sisters disappear and we will soon learn Goneril has poisoned Regan and then has stabbed herself. It is then Edmund dies. These three deaths are off stage. But then King Lear who had regained some sanity before being taken prisoner arrives carrying Cordelia who had been hanged. Edmund had instructed some servant to do it. And King Lear dies of sorrow in front of us, cajoling his dead daughter.
Only two survivors, the Duke of Cornwall and Edgar Earl of Gloster. The Shakespearian cycle is complete: all evil protagonists have been destroyed. But the originality here is that the three weird sisters are three real sisters and they really hate one another. The study of the three sisters and their various degrees of ambition, love and perversity could be illuminating. Cordelia would appear as probably the truest and the most generous but it is her stubbornness that caused the drama, though the great culprit is the old King Lear.
The second originality is of course the three deranged characters, three males this time, King Lear who is really deranged, his Fool who is a professional mad man and Edgar who plays the mad man to remain incognito. But Shakespeare takes advantage of this situation to literally liberate his poetic style to produce a phenomenal language that is probably one of the best linguistic impersonation of insanity. In this production these three characters are performed by three actors who really transcend this insanity to make it look and sound insane. Some other actors are quite good too, like Gloster in his blindness. [...]
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'King Lear'- BBC Version is quite faithful to the play but it lacks a little essence of the play, that could have been noted but the stars of this version foreshadowed it. The play does have a slow start but it goes fast paced due to the acting. The plot is about a king who divided the kingdom to his daughters. When one of them truly expressed her true love towards the king, his fury forced him to banish her from the kingdom. Due to his actions, the consequences came towards the king's life that leads him to a misguidance and a loss of sanity. There are funny sequences when The King exposes his madness, the performance of Tom the Beggar (Edgar) and the fool's 'nuncle' word. The royal status of the King is omitted to shorten the play. There are dialogues replaced to entertain the modern audiences. Somehow it is not the fact but I may say that the film is the bet one to date as I cannot find any of the versions of the play to be better. The acting is much more brilliant due to its star cast like Ralph Fiennes as Tom The Beggar and Michael Hordern as Lear. The villains were also brilliant such as Edmund, Regan and Goneril. I laughed and cried at the same time. The most emotional scene is the moment when Lear recovered his mental illness, and the torturing scene of Glouster who was blinded and begged forgiveness from his legitimate son, Edgar (Tom The Beggar). Overall, the story was superb as the essence of a folk tale. The acting is a little shallow but brilliant at the same time. The changed costumes did not bother much but it was even more realistic made. The camera angle was such that I was watching a stage play. It is faithful and must watch it for the story and its performance only.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have never been a huge fan of "King Lear". Over-wrought and
over-long, the effect at least upon me is tedious. There is no
effective humour to counterpoint the drama (as in the weakest of
Shakespearean plays) and the Fool character is no substitute.
The play is about a monarch who divides up his kingdom between his three daughters, one of whom rejects said inheritance, and the resulting scramble for his power results in the King's descent into madness.
Micheal Hordern plays the title character of Lear, and he is actually pretty effective even when the plot loses it's focus now and then. He is given good support by Brenda Blethyn as Cordelia, his most virtuous daughter, Norman Rodway as the doomed Earl of Gloucester and Anton Lesser as Edgar among others.
The stagy direction and lack of pace are deadening, and muffle the effect of the performances. Technically, it is fine for the time though (again) less dependence on straightforward black-and-white backgrounds would have greatly enhanced the look of the play.
I still don't like "King Lear" but if you enjoy this play and you are a student of Shakespeare, this is still a competent enough production.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The acting in this adaptation might have been OK. I wouldn't know,
halfway through the film I closed my eyes, put my chin on my chest and
listened--I simply could not bear another second of watching King Lear
only in close-ups and medium shots. This seems to be a symptom of
productions, such as A Winter's Tale. He adorns everyone in elaborate
costumes, places them on a set made of plywood and bedsheets, then has
stand in one spot, ONE SPOT, to perform an entire scene as the camera
them tightly framed and doesn't move. In one scene between Lear, Edgar,
Gloucester, the three seemed like caged animals, clawing at the edges of
screen with their lines. It's a play, for goodness' sake, and it should
one--from a distance, as someone in a theater might view it--or as an
-look to Branagh or Nunn.
At one point I joked to my friend beside me, "I wonder if the swordfight will be in close-up." I glanced back up at one point and, sure enough, there were Edgar and Edmund duking it out with only their grimacing faces flashing across and the odd tinkling of swords occurring somewhere off-screen.
After that I bet my friend that Miller would pile the actors into the frame until there wasn't enough room to breathe, and, sorry to say, I was right again. In the final scene, Cordelia's body, Lear, Kent, Edgar, and Albany wedged themselves into a shot that would typically only be comfortable for one actor. The finale of one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, a scene that should be wrought with emotion, had me instead laughing and shaking my head.
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