King Lear - Wikipedia
The feeling of Lear, later on in the play as genuinely a "fond" as well as "foolish" man, is downplayed deliberately. Again, the delivery of Shakespeare's poetry is muted. He comes across as perhaps too restrained and passionless in the later stages. Scofield however, does do very well, carrying out this very distanced, disquieting Lear of Brook's instruction, to the letter. Other actors impress, and are much as restrained; there is little or no actorly show here, the emphasis is on Beckettian delivery of lines, paring down the expression to suggest the futility of expression; words as a mechanical act churned out by humanity, making no difference in a barren, Godless universe.
One can well say this is a reductive reading of Shakespeare, but it is spectacularly successful at its perhaps narrow aim. Visually, Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee, notable Beckett actors, make strong impressions, like Scofield, even if their parts are smaller. Susan Engel and Irene Worth are excellent and look just right as Regan and Goneril respectively, whereas a particularly downplayed Cordelia doesn't make much impression - the Christ-like element is absolutely not dwelt upon here, predictably, for what is a nihilistic interpretation.
Peter Brook's film could perhaps be argued to take place in the Dark Ages, but Brook is clearly interpreting the play in a universally, timeless Beckettian sense. One could liken the film's austerity to the Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman, but this film is certainly pared down in terms of setting and costume when compared with 'The Virgin Spring' or 'The Seventh Seal'.
Brook's approach to Shakespeare shares none of the solace that Bergman finds in humanity in 'The Seventh Seal' with Max von Sydow's Knight's sublime moments with the couple of players. Brook's world-view is clearly informed by the Jan Kott school of Shakespeare criticism; the natural world is a reflection of the human one. Both spheres are bleak and hopeless, as marked by the indiscriminate, desolate Northern landscapes and the equally random acts of cruelty and violence perpetrated by the characters.
A complete lack of incidental music suggests Brook is trying not to distract the viewer in any way from the effect he is trying to create. Brook's film continually attempts to alienate the viewer, with jarring, incessantly restive camera movement and unorthodox angles. The moment of Gloucester's blinding sees Brook metaphorically blind the viewer to the action by having the screen blank; a Brechtian distancing technique, exposing the artifice of cinema and the subjective power the director has.
Likewise, the fates of Goneril and Regan are dispatched with a hurried violence. A very impressive film, that certainly has divided critics. While the "ultimate" film "Lear" may not have been made yet at least from the ones I have seen , this is a brilliant, bleak, Beckett-informed version. A powerful, wonderfully alienating and stark Shakespeare.
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Alternate Versions. News arrives that Cordelia has raised an army of French troops that have landed at Dover. Regan and Goneril ready their troops to fight and they head to Dover. Meanwhile, Kent has heard the news of Cordelia's return, and sets off with Lear hoping that father and daughter can be reunited. Gloucester too tries to make his way to Dover, and on the way, finds his own lost son, Edgar. Tired from his ordeal, Lear sleeps through the battle between Cordelia and her sisters. When Lear awakes he is told that Cordelia has been defeated.
Lear takes the news well, thinking that he will be jailed with his beloved Cordelia — away from his evil offspring. However, the orders have come, not for Cordelia's imprisonment, but for her death. Despite their victory, the evil natures of Goneril and Regan soon destroy them. Both in love with Gloucester's conniving son, Edmund who gave the order for Cordelia to be executed , Goneril poisons Regan. But when Goneril discovers that Edmund has been fatally wounded by Edgar, Goneril kills herself as well.
As Edmund takes his last breath he repents and the order to execute Cordelia is reversed. But the reversal comes too late and Cordelia is hanged. Lear appears, carrying the body of Cordelia in his arms. He has played the part before - over one-hundred performances in David Hare 's National Theatre production; a run which was almost immediately followed by over one-hundred performances in Peter Hall 's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Hopkins had been growing disillusioned with theatre acting for some time, and his success in films such as The Elephant Man and The Bounty served only to expedite his growing dissatisfaction.
Disliking the experience of performing Shakespeare over two-hundred times in the course of two years, and feeling burnt out who can blame him , after Antony finished its run, Hopkins moved to the US to pursue film acting full time. He has often spoken since about just how much he hated those two years, and how much he grew to loathe Shakespeare, particularly Lear.
On his commentary track for Julie Taymor 's Titus , he points out that as far as he was concerned, he was done with Shakespeare, until Taymor convinced him to appear in the film adaptation of her own Theatre for a New Audience production. He also stresses that Titus will most likely be the last time in his life he plays Shakespeare calling the performance his "swan song". Obviously, he changed his mind or Eyre changed it for him , but that he would do so with Lear, of all plays, is decidedly unexpected. So, with that in mind, what exactly is wrong with his performance? How can someone who played the part over one-hundred times possibly give an under par performance?
Well, probably because he played the role over one-hundred times. The performance is lethargic, jaded, lazy, as if it's routine, become so familiar that all meaning has evaporated from the text similar to when you say a word over and over and it starts to sound strange.
Hopkins plays Lear as an easy-to-anger man, used to getting his own way, with little time for sentiment, whose grip on reality is becoming increasingly tenuous. Nothing wrong with that - it's a very basic reading of the character, but still nothing inherently wrong with it. The problem is, we've seen Hopkins play this character before, or a variation thereof, in everything from Legends of the Fall to Nixon to The Wolfman Indeed, his performances in Eyre's Lear is, beat for beat, a virtual carbon copy of his performance in Taymor's Titus.
There are many similarities between the characters, to be sure, but not so many that the parts should be played in exactly the same way as a contrast, look at Brian Cox 's performance in the two roles; Titus in Deborah Warner 's ground-breaking RSC production, and Lear in Warner's National Theatre production - three years, and an ocean of interpretive difference separate the performances. Hopkins's performance has two gears - scenery chewing and shouty scenery chewing. That's it. All of them show more range, and a wider and more complete understanding of the text than Hopkins's one note performance.
Also, his tendency to pause in the middle of verse lines is extremely distracting, and completely disrupts the meter. Such pauses serve to create artificial caesuras in the iambic pentameter lines, turning the verse into a bizarre amalgamation of anapaestic and dactylic hexameters, and even heptameters.
Key moments and facts
A stronger director would have stamped this out, or had the actor speak in prose as a few of the other actors do , but to have the actor speak in verse, but show no respect for the verse is Thankfully the rest of the cast are universally strong. And what a cast! However, the film is stolen by the work of Emily Watson and Tobias Menzies as an insanely bloodthirsty Regan and Cornwall.
Watson's Regan oozes raw sexuality, and the very graphic blinding scene clearly turns both of them on. Two terrific performances which left me wishing there was more of them together in the play. Also impressive is Eyre's direction, although the lack of editing rhythm in the opening scene is a little strange, and the shot composition in places tends to flatten the image, making it seem a little like a filmed play. His decision to set the play in modern London, however, with Lear as a retiring pseudo-dictator, works very well Edgar is an astrophysicist, Edmund is in the armed forces.
In this context, the shopping mall scene is especially well conceived and executed, as a now quite mad Lear wanders around a near-derelict shopping mall in a bad part of town, dressed like a vagrant, pushing a shopping trolley, and talking to a doll. It's a deeply unsettling image that encapsulates perfectly just how far he has fallen. Also well conceived is the scene set in an asylum seekers' refugee camp.
The political commentary is a little on the nose, as Lear looks around the camp at the faces of the refugees, forcing him to consider issues of which he's never before conceived, but it's effective, timely and non-intrusive. So, all-in-all, a strong adaptation with an excellent cast brought down only by a weak central performance. Unfortunately, the part of Lear is so completely central, pivotal, and dominating, that if it doesn't work, there's a problem.