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.
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.