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King Lear (1983)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of King Lear (1983)
Granada for Channel 4, tx. 3/4/1983
159 mins, colour
DirectorMichael Elliott
ProducerDavid Plowright
Original PlayWilliam Shakespeare
MusicGordon Crosse

Cast: Laurence Olivier (King Lear); John Hurt (Fool); Leo McKern (Gloucester); Colin Blakely (Kent); Dorothy Tutin (Goneril); Diana Rigg (Regan); Anna Calder-Marshall (Cordelia); Robert Lindsay (Edmund); David Threlfall (Edgar); Brian Cox (Burgundy)

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Produced by Granada Television in their Manchester studios for transmission by the then fledgling Channel Four, King Lear remains one of the most ambitious independent Shakespeare television productions to date. It contained Laurence Olivier's first filmed Shakespeare performance in nearly ten years (he'd played Shylock for Jonathan Miller's ATV production of The Merchant of Venice, tx. 10/2/1974) and was widely - and, as it turned out, accurately - assumed to be his farewell to the Bard in any medium.

Olivier had previously played Lear on stage in 1946, in a performance undoubtedly very different from this one, which took full advantage of the actor's genuine frailty (though he still insisted on being drenched with near-freezing water to add realism to the storm scene) to underline the contrast between king and man, desperately striving to assert his authority as it crumbles with his physical faculties. If the opening scenes fail to match the gravitas conveyed by other filmed Lears (such as Paul Scofield in 1970 and Ian Holm in 1998), the subsequent return to nature is wholly convincing, especially when he eats a freshly-killed rabbit.

The sense of occasion was enhanced by the calibre of the supporting cast, almost all the major roles being played by a bona fide star. Dorothy Tutin and especially Diana Rigg are authentically chilling as Goneril and Regan, Leo McKern is a tragically credulous Gloucester, Colin Blakely a painfully loyal Kent, Robert Lindsay a charismatic yet palpably poisonous Edmund and John Hurt a somewhat effeminate fool. Most impressive of all was the (then) comparatively little-known David Threlfall as Edgar, negotiating a supremely difficult part with consummate conviction.

The budget and production values were slightly higher than for the concurrent BBC Television Shakespeare plays, though Michael Elliott's production was still firmly studio-bound (the original plan had been to film a stage production, until Olivier's health made this impossible). Its fog-shrouded stone circle suggests a Britain still firmly in the dark ages, recalling Stonehenge and pagan ritual: the design comes into its own in the final scene, when Lear and Cordelia are laid out together, finally united in death.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The fateful division (5:03)
2. The blasted heath (2:36)
3. Gloucester blinded (4:21)
Blakely, Colin (1930-1987)
Cox, Brian (1946-)
Hurt, John (1940-)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Lindsay, Robert (1949-)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Rigg, Diana (1938-)
Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare
Channel 4 Drama
King Lear On Screen
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television