Posts Tagged ‘jonathan miller’

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.

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.


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.