The BBC Shakespeare: King Lear (1982)

In any traversal of the Shakespeare canon, King Lear is a biggie. In terms of sheer titanic power – or, indeed, in terms of anything else one can think of – it is both unsurpassed and unsurpassable. So when it appeared in the much maligned (and, in my view, unfairly maligned) BBC Shakespeare series in early 80s, expectations, even for a series that had not till then been particularly well received, were high. In the end, the consensus of opinion was that it was yet another disappointment. I certainly thought so at the time. In particular, I wondered why Michael Hordern, better known as a comic actor, was cast in what many would consider the most powerful of all tragic roles: it seemed perverse given that thespian heavyweights such as Gielgud, Olivier, and Scofield were still around. Hordern seemed to me far too lightweight, and the whole thing an opportunity missed.

But having watched the production again recently, I find myself revising my opinion quite radically. It is by no means a perfect production: like so many others in the series, it seems under-rehearsed, with that otherwise fine cast not always knowing quite what is expected of them while they are in shot but not speaking. However, to my surprise, for all its shortcomings, this production does seem to me to get to the dark and despairing heart of this extraordinary drama which, even after almost a lifetime’s acquaintance, retains the power to shake us to the very core.

(In retrospect, it was a good job Olivier wasn’t cast for the role: barely a year after this production was first broadcast, another version of the play, this time with Olivier as Lear, was broadcast by Granada Television, and, despite the stellar cast, it all fell rather flat: Lear, it seems, was not amongst Olivier’s most distinguished Shakespearean roles.)

Possibly the first thing to say is that whatever the shortcomings of this production, the casting of Michael Hordern is not amongst them. It was clearly not the case that he had been cast because the likes of Gielgud or Olivier or Scofield weren’t available: this was the second time director Jonathan Miller had directed King Lear for the BBC, and he had cast Hordern in the earlier production also. He had also directed Michael Hordern as Lear on stage. Putting aside my own preconceptions regarding Lear, this is how Miller sees the character – not larger than life at all, not possessed of any grandeur or magnificence, but one who, once the robes and furred gowns no longer hide all, is revealed to be merely frail and human and smelling of mortality. The events that overtake him are apocalyptic, but it is in the inadequacy of frail humanity in the face of such apocalyptic events that the tragedy lies. Given this conception, Michael Hordern turns in what strikes me now as a superb performance. From his childish but nonetheless potent tantrums when he banishes Kent and Cordelia to the greater but utterly impotent rage in the superbly staged storm scenes (filmed in the studio, and all the better for it); from his growing awareness of how little his mortality signifies to his glimpses of that which may possibly transcend it; it is, once I had accustomed myself to a reading smaller in scale than I had been used to, utterly convincing at each step. Particularly good is the meeting with the blind Gloucester (the excellent Norman Rodway) on the heath – a scene which, like that of Cassandra before the House of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, may be considered to be representative of the highest peak of the tragic imagination: this scene is played with a disconcerting directness, and utterly without sentimentality. No appeal to tears here, no attempt to evoke pathos: the drama is beyond tears by this stage.

lear

Another of Miller’s ideas is to present a Fool who is as old as Lear himself. And, as in his previous BBC production, he chose Frank Middlemass for the role. It works superbly well: here is a Fool who can address Lear with ease and familiarity not merely because he is “all-licensed”, but because he and Lear, though respectively servant and master, have spent their entire lives together. The Fool’s barbs come from a lifetime of understanding, and, out in the storm together, he, old and unaccommodated, is as frail and as tragic a figure as his master is.

The supporting cast is equally impressive. Penelope Wilton’s Regan, for instance: Regan of course is a very disturbing character (“Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”), but I found something quite uniquely unnerving about the girlish smile with which she views even something so unthinkably horrific as an old man having his eyes plucked out. And Anton Lesser made far more of Edgar that I would have thought possible. I could have done without the heavy-handed Christ imagery that Jonathan Miller lumbers him with, but there are certain scenes here – most notably the one where Edgar, initially in a self-pitying mood, sees his father eyeless – where one is tempted to think that it is he who is at the play’s tragic heart. Edgar is, it must be conceded, an under-written character, whose motivations are frequently vague, and whom it is almost impossible to bring to life; but rarely have I seen an actor make so much out of such little material.

The only slight disappointment amongst the supporting cast was Michael Kitchen’s Edmund – disappointment because, given what a fine actor we all know he is, more might have been expected: Edmund is surely amongst the most unmitigated evil characters in literature, but we get little here beyond merely a likable rogue. More, I can’t help feeling, may have been attempted.

The entire thing is shot in the studio, employing minimum sets, and with much use made of close-ups. This seems to me an ideal way to put King Lear on screen.

Those wanting a more heavyweight assumption of the role of Lear is best directed, I think, to this extraordinary audio recording from the 60s featuring Paul Scofield, but, if one can accustom oneself to a very different though equally valid conception of the role, this version, though not perfect, is, to my mind, the best of all currently available DVD versions that I have seen. As any good production of this play should, it overwhelms.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. You know, I’m not sure I’ve even *read* LEAR before. I probably did back in high school (even if our English classes didn’t hit it) but have certainly never gotten to revisit it; one of those things that I always meant to do but which always got sidetracked. Given your review and this cast (I’ll always have time for Penelope Wilton), I may just grab this one from the library and watch it this weekend. Incidentally, Rodway (as Hotspur) was one of the unexpected highlights of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

    Reply

    • I was 11 when I wentto see Timothy West play Lear at the Edinburgh fgestival, and I have been a Shakespeare nut ever since. I know art is not a competitive sport, and that it makes no sense to speak of the “greatest”, so let me just say that I cannot think of any other work, in any medium, that has made a greater impact on me than this play. It still has the power to shake me.

      Reply

      • Posted by Mario DiCesare on May 5, 2015 at 1:15 pm

        Good for you! I was a little older, maybe 14, when I became a Shakespeare nut, and now, at 86, I am more of one, totally unrepentant. In a fortnight, friends will start coming to my house two or three times a week to read (aloud) and discuss Shakespeare — starting with Richard II, then Much Ado, then Lear.

        My reaction to Lear is a little different; I love the play and I hate the play; it always leaves me shattered. I remember the time my late and much beloved wife and I were living in a thatched cottage in the ancient village of Pampisford, and we drove to Stratford to see Lear with two British friends. Even though we’d seen the play more than once, that experience was so overwheming that afterwards we could only sit quietly outside The Dirty Duck and nurse our drinks for a half-hour or so, before anyone could think to start the conversation.

      • Hello mario, and welcome. Your planned Shakespeare meetings sound absolutely wonderful! I’d love to be able to take part in something like that!

        I can quite understand your eraction to King lear: its is, indeed, a harrowing play, and teheffect of a good production is like no other. Last summer, I saw the two Henry IV plays in Stratford on a single day, and found myself having to sit quietly by myself for a while just to compose myself before driving back home.

        I have becomneme quite addicted now to listening to the plays on audio. I am downloading them, one a month, on to my i-Pad: i still have about 12 or so to go!

        All the best for now, Himadri

  2. I have not seen this version of King Lear.

    Often when I read the play did get a strong sense of the terrible vulnerability in the character of King Lear. Only after I had seen some performances, and perhaps after I read some criticism, did I appreciate the monumental nature of the persona.

    I will try to seek this performance out.

    Reply

    • I think because we’re so used to actors playing Lear who possess a towering personality, we think of Lear as a “monumental” character. That is certainly the way Paul Scofield plays him, and it’s magnificent. But I must admit that once I had accustomed myself to Michael Hordern’s smaller scale interpretation, that worked very well also.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on June 13, 2013 at 11:00 am

    ‘King Lear’ is the Shakespeare play that I find the most compelling and overpowering. I sometimes wonder why we are meant to ‘enjoy’ such a thing.

    Like you, I envisaged Lear as an overwhelming persona, but that is possibly because of the magnitude of the play itself. Lear is not just frail and vulnerable, he is feeble-headed, which I don’t think you would say, overall, of Hamlet, Othello and McBeth. What is magnificent about him is the playwright’s capacity to explore his inner life rather than outward splendour or resourcefulness which the other three display with greater aplomb.

    Iv learnt to see him as weak and foolish from beginning to end. The dexterity of his own discovery of this is what makes the play unsurpassable, rather than the character himself.

    Er, maybe….

    Reply

    • I remember Orson Welles arguing once that after having written Hamlet, Shakespeare realised how difficult it was to create tragic protagonists who are intelligent, and all the trtagic protagonists that followed were fools in one way or the other. (Even when they are leader of men, such as Othello, Macbeth, Antony, or Coriolanus: beyond their field of expertise, they are fools!) There’s something in that, I think. It’s probably because Lear’s rage in the storm scenes is so monumental that we think of him as a larger-than-life figure. That is still the way I think of Lear, but as i say, if we are prepared to put aside our expectations on this score, Michael Hordern’s smaller scale performance makes perfect sense.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Matthew Kramer on October 3, 2013 at 11:59 am

    I agree with virtually everything in your review. Hordern’s “humanizing” of the character of Lear makes especially poignant the great vocative disquisition on “You houseless poverty” in III.iv.26-36. I’ll add just two quick things to what you’ve said. First, complementing Penelope Wilton’s superb performance as Regan is the outstanding performance by Gillian Barge as the equally loathsome Goneril. Second, a few of the transitions between scenes were misleadingly smooth. For example, Edmund appears to be in Lear’s palace at the beginning of I.ii, when he is in fact at Gloucester’s castle. Likewise, Edgar appears to be in Gloucester’s castle in II.iii even though he has already fled the castle for his life. A director as adept as Jonathan Miller could and should have avoided such missteps.

    Reply

    • Hello Matthew, and welcome. And thank you for your comments. I should indeed have specfically mentioned Gillian Barge: it is important, I think, to contrast the two sisters, rather than to present them generically as two of a kind, and I don’t think I have seen these characters acted better than they are here.

      The filming was done on a single set with the minimum of props – which is fine – but even so, it shouldn’t have been too difficult to suggest different locations. Now that you point it out, this does seem a serious lapse. I do get the impression that the whole thing was put together very quickly: fine though it is, it could have been even better. Sadly, I doubt we’ll get another opportunity to do these works properly in the television studio, as modern film-makers don’t like allowing any individual scene to run on for more than a couple of minutes or so at the most.

      But despite its flaws, I thought this was a wonderful production, and reading your comment, I’m glad I’m not the only one who rates it highly!

      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  5. Posted by Mark L. on February 5, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    Who gets treated worse, Lear or Gloucester? The answer is obvious, so I think it makes sense that Gloucester gets to be distinctly more histrionic than Lear, as in this production. Thus they’re not crowding into the same space. (I say “this production” although on reading the indication that Hordern played Lear twice for the BBC, I’m left unsure whether I saw this one or the other.)

    Reply

    • Hello Mark, I can’t really argue with your contention that what Gloucester suffers is even more horrendous than what Lear suffers. However, dramatically, it is Lear rather than Gloucester who is at the centre of the play, and a production that allows Gloucester’s drama to overshadow Lear’s would, I think, be lop-sided.

      I’d guess thatthe production you saw was the later one from the BBC Shakespeare series, as the earlier one has not, to my knowledge, been released on DVD.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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