King Lear Reviews
For me, the definitive King Lear was Owen Roe in Selina Cartmell's magisterial 2013 Abbey Theatre production in Dublin. The scenes on the heath were unlike anything I've ever seen, as Roe alternated, sentence by sentence between a fairly standard (if brilliantly staged) raging at the heavens, and turning directly to the audience and speaking quietly and calmly, almost emotionlessly. Sentence. By. Sentence. Without breaking the metre of the iambic pentameter verse! Of course, Cartmell's choice here is obvious; the use of two different styles of delivery serve as a succinct visual/aural metaphor for the inner turmoil of the character, but although it's a thematically simple enough device, it requires a performance of immense control to bring it off.
And then we have Anthony Hopkins in writer/director Richard Eyre's TV adaptation for the BBC. Oh dear. What's especially disappointing is how little interested he seems in doing anything beyond giving the barest essentials in his interpretation of the part.
Hopkins played Lear in over 100 performances in David Hare's 1986 National Theatre production, so how can someone who played the part this often possibly give an under par performance? Well, probably because he played the part this often. The performance is lethargic, jaded, lazy, as if it's routine, become so familiar that all meaning has evaporated from the text. 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 him play this character before, or a variation thereof, in everything from Legends of the Fall to Nixon to The Wolfman. Indeed, his performance in Eyre's Lear is, beat for beat, a virtual carbon copy of his performance in Julie 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 manner (as a contrast, look at Brian Cox's work in the two roles; Titus in Deborah Warner's ground-breaking 1987 RSC production, and Lear in Warner's 1990 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. 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, turning the verse into a bizarre amalgamation of anapaestic and dactylic hexameters, and even heptameters. 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, yet show no respect for the verse is...strange.
Thankfully the rest of the cast are universally strong. Emma Thompson as a nasty Goneril; Jim Broadbent as a sympathetic Gloucester; John MacMillan as a soft-spoken Edmund; Andrew Scott as an emotional Edgar; Jim Carter as a gruff Kent; Florence Pugh as a wide-eyed Cordelia; Karl Johnson as a serious Fool; Christopher Eccleston as a ridiculous Oswald; Anthony Calf as a take-charge Albany; and Chukwudi Iwuji as a considerate France. However, the film is stolen by Emily Watson and Tobias Menzies as a bloodthirsty Regan and Cornwall. Watson's Regan oozes raw sexuality, and the blinding scene clearly turns both of them on. Two terrific performances which left me wishing there was more of them in the play.
Also impressive is Eyre's direction. His decision to set the play in modern London, with Lear as a retiring pseudo-dictator, works very well (Edgar is an astrophysicist, Edmund is in the armed forces). In this context, a scene in a shopping mall is especially well executed, as a now quite mad Lear wanders around the 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 and timely.
All-in-all, this is a strong adaptation with an excellent cast brought down only by a weak central performance. Unfortunately, the part of Lear is so central that if it doesn't work, there's a problem. Hopkins's performance isn't so bad as to distract too much from the excellent work done elsewhere, but what's annoying about it is it could easily have been so much better.