Lear eviscerated: Jonathan Miller’s latest production of “King Lear”

Although it’s often quoted as if it were a profound piece of wisdom, I have never really understood what Wilde meant by the line “Each man kills the thing he loves”. I suspect that, as with most other Wildean epigrams, he was more concerned with sound than with sense. But I couldn’t help thinking of that line on seeing the Northern Broadsides touring production of King Lear, featuring Barrie Rutter in the title role, and directed – for the eighth time, I believe – by Jonathan Miller.

This is a production I very much wanted to like. Regional theatre companies are amongst the most important aspect of our artistic life here in Britain, and the standard of Shakespearean production in this country – despite some ill-considered sniping to the contrary – remains very high. Putting on such a colossal masterpiece such as King Lear is precisely what a company such as Northern Broadsides should be doing. And there can be no doubt that Jonathan Miller loves this play: he would hardly have directed it eight times if he didn’t. In the programme notes of this production, he is quoted as saying that this is the play he “knows best”. His production of King Lear for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 80s struck me as, in many ways, quite outstanding: it would certainly be my top recommendation for anyone wanting a performance of this play for home viewing. And yet, this latest production, which is likely, given Jonathan Miller is now 80, to be his last of the work, never springs to life. I do not think this is a fault of the cast, who were hardly given the opportunity to make the most of their parts: no – it is Jonathan Miller himself who, for reasons I cannot fathom, appears to have killed the thing he so obviously loves.

Of course, Jonathan Miller has long held views on this play that may be described as idiosyncratic. Perhaps uniquely amongst major theatre directors, he does not see King Lear as an epic play; he does not see Lear himself as a towering figure, larger than life; he does not see the drama as a work of cosmic significance: the characters in this play, he insists, are contending not against cosmic forces, but against each other. This is not, I admit, my own view of the work, but I am always happy to have my views challenged, especially by someone who has thought as long and hard about the work as Miller has obviously done. But he has a strange way of making his point: to demonstrate that the play is not epic or cosmic, he simply removes from it all passages that suggest the epic or the cosmic. If, say, a pianist is convinced that Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain no slow music, and tries to demonstrate this by omitting all the slow movements in performance, I doubt anyone would be taking that pianist too seriously; yet, I do not see that Miller’s approach is any different.

It is not that I insist on a full presentation of the text. In the first place, what is generally regarded as a “full text” is really a conflation of two quite separate texts; and, in general, most Shakespeare plays can, in performance, take a bit of judicious cutting. But here, the text wasn’t so much cut as eviscerated. In scene after scene, some of the most affecting, extraordinary, and – dare I say it – epic and cosmic of passages were simply cut away.  Of course, in saying this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of being a mere Shakespearean tourist, as it were, wanting merely to savour the famous highlights, like those who step off the tour bus for a few minutes to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower before being whisked on to the next famous landmark. But I plead “not guilty” to that. The cuts imposed by Miller were so ruinous that they seemed to take the very heart out of the play. I understood how Miller doesn’t see the play, I got no sense of how he does.

For instance, I can understand – though not necessarily agree with – the excision of the passage depicting the mock-trial in III,vi: if the Folio text is regarded as Shakespeare’s own revision of the earlier Quarto text, Shakespeare made the cut himself. But if the reason for this excision is textual, it is hard to account for the excision of the lines Shakespeare had added in the Folio text: Lear’s last line, for instance, which, at the very point of extinction, seems to hint at a transcending vision. Perhaps Shakespeare was being too “cosmic” here for Jonathan Miller – I don’t know.

The famous storm scenes too had their dark heart removed. In other productions I have seen, and even in my readings of play, the combination of Lear’s ragings, the Fool’s increasingly irrelevant gibberings, Poor Tom’s utter gibberish – in which the very structure of language seems to break down – and, of course, the elemental nature of the storm itself, transports me into a world of apocalyptic terror. But here, Lear does not rage – so when the French doctor later says his “great rage … is killed”, one can but wonder what he is on about; and much of the Fool’s part, and virtually all of Poor Tom’s are cut. After the Fool speaks a prophecy (mainly nonsense: Shakespeare has taken us into a world here that has stopped making sense), he speaks the very strange line “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”, and suddenly, we realise that the Fool is actually prophesying a prophecy, and chasms open at our feet; the very structure of time itself seems to have collapsed. In this production, the prophecy is retained, but not the line that follows, and, as a consequence, nothing very much is communicated to the audience at all. (This entire passage appears only in the Folio text, not in the Quarto, but since only part of it is retained, I doubt that the reasons for the cut had anything to do with textual considerations.) And while there is, as I said, some textual argument to support the excision of the mock-trial (which appears only in the Quarto text), one wonders what could have prompted Miller to cut the entire scene in which it appears.

And so it continues. The scene where the mad Lear meets the blind Gloucester – which projects the most terrible of tragic visions more powerfully than just about any other scene in drama that I can think of – is cut to shreds; and even at the end – where, in this production, Lear, instead of entering with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, totters in weakly after her body – the chilling animal-like cries of “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” are cut. And, of course, Lear’s final line, which really does hint at the cosmic dimension that Miller insists isn’t there, is also cut. All that is grand; all that is magnificent, colossal, epic; all that is visionary; is cut away.

One does not, I agree, need to be epic to communicate artistic visions of passion and of intensity: to consider an example from a rather different medium, Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony is conceived on a much smaller scale than the grand, epic readings of Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti or Karajan, but is nonetheless overwhelming on its own terms. But that is not so here: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to compensate for all that was missing. At times, it seemed no more than a perfunctory run-through of selected scenes from the play. Indeed, I can think of no better argument to counter the “Meant-to-be-seen-not-read” contingent: any reading of this play yields greater dividends than seeing a production as limp as this; and anyone whose sole acquaintance with this towering masterpiece is this production will come away with a very distorted and diminished view of Shakespeare’s work.


Normally, I try not to write on this blog about what I don’t like, and I feel a bit bad, I must admit, about writing this particular post: the tradition of Shakespearean performance remains very strong in Britain, and I have no wish to join the ranks of trendy detractors who seem hostile to the very idea of “tradition”. But I do have a genuine respect for Jonathan Miller, admire much of his work as director, and really was looking forward to a production that I was hoping would open up, for me at any rate, new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating play. But in the event, for reasons best known to himself, Jonathan Miller really has killed the thing he loves. He has killed it stone dead, and I don’t have the faintest idea why.

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mimi on May 23, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    I feel this is an outstanding post. Logic, feeling, and rhetoric join in a thoroughly convincing and even inspiring swell of language. Thanks for your beautiful defense of what is epic and cosmic in Lear. To me, it doesn’t come across sounding “negative.” (Among the many particular highlights, I’ll mention these: I love the analogy to the selective pianist playing Beethoven with the slow bits taken out. Also, the mentions of textual concerns were enlightening to me.)


    • Thank you for that, Mimi. I really don’t like being negative about artistic endeavour: I am just grateful for those who make the effort, and put themselves on the firing line.

      King Lear was the play that turned me into a Shakespearean. When aged 11, my parents took me to see Timothy West as Lear at the Edinburgh festival, and I was so excited by what I had seen, I remember I couldn’t get to sleep that night. When I read it, or in a good performance (I have been lucky to have seen a few), it has a quite visceral effect on me. It takes us into a world that seems to have stopped making sense: we really do seem to be on the edge of sanity. It is a play that seems to suggest all possibilities, but it confirms nothing, and we seem to be presented simultaneously with visions both of nothingness and of transcendence. I really know of nothing else quite like it.


  2. Ditto Mimi. I’ve always had problems with Lear. Now I have to go back and revisit.


    • When asked what my favourite Shakespeare play is, I usually reply Twelfth Night or Antony and Cleopatra, but looking back, I think I have written more about King Lear on this blog than about any other Shakespeare play. I suppose one can’t really like it, as such: it is too disturbing a work. But it’s probably the work of art that makes the greatest impact on me.


  3. Posted by Malcolm on May 23, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    With regard to your very last comment, Himadri, has Jonathan Miller not written or spoken anywhere about what he was trying to achieve in this production? Defended the cuts somehow?

    I don’t think wanting to savour the famous highlights would make you a Shakespearean tourist anyway, any more than expecting a band to play its most famous songs makes a concert listener a tourist of music. (And anyway as one who has spent a lot of time seeing your lovely British Isles and other places and who appreciates visitors spending time in New Zealand, I wonder what is wrong with being a tourist and enjoying the best bits?)


    • I suppose it may be said that a more considered view of one’s tourist destination may be more rewarding than merely ticking off the famous landmarks, but then again, a tourist is entitled to tour as he or she pleases. But I don’t know that ticking off the highlight sis a good way to approach a work of art such as King Lear!

      Jonathan Miller certainly isn’t averse to speaking at length about his interpretations: I do wish sometimes that he’d let teh production speak for itself – there’s no reason why it should come with lecture notes. Miller has certainly spoken at length about his views on Lear, although I don’t know if he has spoken about this particular production. But ultimately, any production must be judged by how it works in performance, and on that score I think it’s fair to say I was deeply unimpressed.


  4. Mimi’s right – great post. In another world, you should have been a theater critic.


    • Erring paid for going to see plas and waiting about it certainly sounds good to me, but really, ever since I grew out if wanting to be an engine driver, I’ve had this desire to spend my professional life extracting and statistically analysing data, and designing mathematical models … Ah well, I guess it’s too late to change now?


  5. Pace Wilde: I always took it as a comment on self-infatuation and self-destrctiveness, certainly true of Wilde. But yeah, it sounds so romantically ambiguous.


    • I must confess I like Wilde only in small doses. He wrote a perfect comic pay, and I do wish he had written more in that vein. I can’t really take him too seriously as a serious writer, and don’t really see any great depth or wisdom in his epigrams – although I do concede that they are immaculately phrased. But perhaps I was being a bit harsh on him here.


      • I don’t think you were being harsh: he is often superficial. His fascination for the surface was his greatest weakness.

        Personally, I think his opening to “The Soul of Man under Socialism” is a masterpiece of paradoxical wit:

        “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.“

        Who but Wilde would justify socialism purely on the basis of self-interested selfishness?

      • Ha! That, I must admit, is good!

        There’s a similar passage somewhere in Lawrence’s Women in Love where Rupert Birkin says that the only reason he supports democracy is that once everyone has equal rights, he’d be entitled to say “Look – you’ve got what you want – now leave me alone and don’t hold me back!”

  6. Excellent post. I am inspired to re-read King Lear!


    • I suppose it’s the single work of art I have revisited more than I have any other, and, without claiming to be an expert, the work that I probably know best. It’s come to a stage where I feel a bit proprietorial about it!


  7. Posted by Scott GF Bailey on May 27, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Doesn’t your Mr Miller realize that when Shakespeare’s characters contend against each other, they are at the same time contending against cosmic forces? It’s all of it together. If you reduce Shakespeare down to the mundane, you ain’t got Shakespeare.

    He cut the howls and has Lear come on empty-handed behind Cordelia’s corpse? Maybe Miller sees “Lear” as a play about the futility and helplessness of old age, sure, but what about the hubris of powerful men, the themes of fathers and children, and everything else that makes this play such a thickness of immense ideas?

    This is a terrific post. I make noise in the comments as an excuse to say that.


    • Posted by Mimi on May 27, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Hear, hear! (“If you reduce Shakespeare down to the mundane, you ain’t got Shakespeare.” –Exactly. Alas for Hamlet without the soliloquies, or Carmen without the arias, or the Fourth of July without fireworks!)


      • Well – at least the production, poor though I thought it was, got me back to reading the play over again!

        I really cannot think of another work of art, in any medium, that i feel closer to than this.

    • Hello Scott,

      Although the production I saw was disappointing, it served the purpose of focussing my mind again on King Lear. (Not that the play is ever out of my mind…)

      Thh play is indeed about people contending against each other, as Miller says, but this contention raises, often quite explicitly I think, questions so immense that the word “cosmic” seems to me not misapplied. What is the nature of evil? How does it come to be part of the human soul? What part does God, or gods, play in our lives? Are our lives ends in themselves, or is there some wider hidden purpose that we may only guess at? Does human good atone for human evil, or does the evil nullify the good? All this and more probes at the most basic mysteries of human life, and it seems to me reasonable to apply to them the term “cosmic”. I certainly would be interested in seeing this play attempted on a small scale, as I don’t think smallness of scale need necessarily diminish the intensity of the experience. I suppose my grouse with Miller’s approach is not that he tried it out on a small scale, but that the production projected nothing beyond tehbasic outline of teh story.

      But looking through the various other reviews, I see I am in a minority in not caring for it.

      All the best, Himadri


  8. Himadri – I agree with all above that this is a wonderful post – and with Amateur Reader that you’d make a great theater critic.

    Writing without having seen the production, of course, I am nonetheless completely baffled by Miller’s decision to cut the “cosmic forces” lines. As Scott B. implies above, it seems akin to trying to remove characters from, say, their roles as political beings. As an artistic production, it may well have been Miller’s intention to highlight the characters’ interactions freed from the larger forces suggested in the play, a way of concentrating attention on them. But cutting passages strikes me as a rather unimaginative way to go about it – especially for a play that, even if the characters are “merely” contending against one another, conveys such an uncanny, apocalyptic vision, one perhaps more suited the post-1945 world than to the Elizabethan period. Even if all this arises from the characters’ very human actions, Lear’s blindness and pride wreck the world. What could be more cosmic than that?


    • Hello Scott,

      I must admit that despite having thought as best I can about Miller’s views on the play – he is, after all, an intelligent man, and has thought long and hard about the work – I can make no sense of them. Lear explicitly asks: “is there some cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” What is it that makes human beings evil? Lear is here explicitly looking beyond individual humans in search of some root cause. “What is the cause of thunder?” he asks – and, in the dramatic context in which this line is spoken, one must be literalist indeed not to see it in an implicit metaphor. the gods are referred to continuously. Lear, in one of the most moving lines in all literature, speaks of “taking upon us the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies”. We need to judge for ourselves whether he means spies on God (i.e. finding out what a possibly unreliable God is up to), or spies on behalf of God (i.e. reporting back to God, who presumably does not know, what is happening in the world). Either way, we “take upon us”, we embrace, the “mystery of things”. If this is not “cosmic”, what is?

      All the best,


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