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King Lear On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy

Main image of King Lear On Screen

Despite its stature as one of Shakespeare's four greatest tragedies, King Lear has never been as popular as Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth when it comes to film and television adaptation: the play's complexity, length and overall bleakness tend to work against it. Although truncated silent versions were made in Germany (1905), the US (1909 and 1914), Italy (1910 and 1913) and France (1910), it was not until 1970 that a full-length version was attempted by Peter Brook, and that remains the play's definitive big-screen English-language account to date (the two other major screen Lears, Grigori Kozintsev's 1970 Korol Lir and Akira Kurosawa's 1985 Ran, being in Russian and Japanese respectively).

Brook's film was sourced from a Royal Shakespeare Company production he directed at Stratford in 1962, but radically reworked for the cinema - rather too radically for many, as it garnered some vitriolic reviews, much of the abuse being directed at Brook's deliberate alienation of the audience through the use of jarring camera movements, out-of-focus shots, a complete absence of music and even visuals at one point - the screen goes blank following the blinding of Gloucester. Heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett and the critic Jan Kott, this is Shakespeare pared to the bone, its absurd-surreal elements to the fore, shot in black and white and staged in a desolate Scandinavian landscape familiar from Ingmar Bergman's work (it was filmed in Denmark). Overwhelmingly a director's film, it nonetheless had a superb cast, with Paul Scofield's majestic Lear supported by Beckett veterans Jack MacGowran (the Fool) and Patrick Magee (Cornwall), with Irene Worth's Goneril also standing out.

Neither of the other two big-screen adaptations match its achievements. In 1976, the British Film Institute Production Board backed a 48-minute black-and-white adaptation of the Triple Action Theatre's highly physical deconstruction of the play, while in 1999 Brian Blessed both starred in and directed an exceptionally low-budget adaptation that was generally regarded as a vanity project.

More rewarding was The Dresser (d. Peter Yates, 1983), an adaptation of the Ronald Harwood play about the relationship between ageing stage star 'Sir' (Albert Finney) and his devoted dresser (Tom Courtenay), which comes to a head during a production of King Lear. In 2001, Don Boyd's My Kingdom relocated the plot (though not the verse) to Liverpool's gangland underworld, with Richard Harris giving a powerful performance as Sandeman, an ageing drug kingpin who decides to divide his 'kingdom' amongst two of his daughters after the third turns her back on him following his wife's murder.

The first British television King Lear (BBC, tx. 22 & 29/8/1948) was by all accounts a very successful production, and its timeslot of 200 minutes suggests a very full account of the text. Directed by Royston Morley, it starred William Devlin (Lear), Rosalie Crutchley (Goneril), Nicolette Bernard (Regan), Ursula Howells (Cordelia) and Patrick Troughton (Edmund). In 1974, Thames Television produced a low-budget version aimed at schools, with each of its six parts broadcast twice on consecutive days. Despite Patrick Magee in the title role (he had previously played Cornwall in the Peter Brook film), the production was not regarded as being especially distinguished.

The next two small-screen versions were somewhat unusual in that they shared the same director (Jonathan Miller) and lead actors (Michael Hordern as Lear, Frank Middlemass as the Fool): the three had previously collaborated on a stage version at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1969. Their first television version was screened as a BBC Play of the Month (tx. 23/3/1975), with the text cut to two hours as was customary for that slot. Despite this, Miller was very proud of this version, and according to BBC Television Shakespeare chronicler Susan Willis he initially proposed repeating it instead of making a new production for the later cycle, though was told that this was contractually impossible. Since his interpretation of the play hadn't essentially changed, Miller essentially restaged the 1975 production with the same lead actors, production and costume designs, but containing a much fuller account of the text (tx. 19/9/1982). An accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary, presented by the critic Frank Kermode, was shown the previous week.

Only a few months later, another television Lear emerged. Made by Granada but screened on Channel 4 (tx. 3/4/1983), it was one of the fledgling channel's most prestigious broadcastgs to date, and remains the most star-studded version of King Lear yet filmed. The main reason for the hype was Laurence Olivier's participation in the lead role - his first Shakespeare appearance for nine years (he had previously played Shylock in ATV's 1974 Merchant of Venice), it was widely, and accurately, predicted to be his last - though the quality of Michael Elliott's production also stood the test of time. Set in a fog-shrouded ancient Britain studied with mysterious stone monoliths, it saw Olivier exploiting his own genuine physical frailty to overwhelming effect. The supporting cast was one of the best ever assembled for a television Shakespeare broadcast, and included 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) and Brian Cox (Burgundy).

The most recent television King Lear was broadcast by the BBC on 21 March 1998 in a one-off revival of their Performance drama slot. Sourced from Richard Eyre's much-praised National Theatre production, its cast included Ian Holm (Lear), Michael Bryant (Fool), Timothy West (Gloucester), Barbara Flynn (Goneril), Amanda Redman (Regan) and Victoria Hamilton (Cordelia).

Between those two productions were two intriguing Lear spin-offs. The edition of The South Bank Show broadcast on 11 January 1987 entirely devoted to the play and its complex production history: in addition to interviewing various actors and directors who have tackled it, it also reconstructed Nahum Tate's bizarre seventeenth-century adaptation. More recently, Shakespeare on the Estate (BBC2, tx. 27/10/1994) saw director Michael Bogdanov taking his camera to run-down housing estate in Ladywood, Birmingham, working with the residents to explore assorted Shakespeare scenes - including material from King Lear. Bogdanov's stated aim was to determine just how relevant Shakespeare still is to the working classes. Although initially greeted with suspicion and hostility, by the third week Bogdanov won them over, and some eighty locals ended up being involved.


1970, d. Peter Brook
1976, d. Steven Rumbelow
1999, d. Brian Blessed
My Kingdom, 2001, d. Don Boyd

BBC, tx. 22 & 29/8/1948, d. Royston Morley
ITV, tx. 24/9 - 5/11/1974 (6-part schools adaptation), d. Tony Davenall
Play of the Month, BBC2, tx. 23/3/1975, d. Jonathan Miller
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 19/9/1982, d. Jonathan Miller
Channel 4, tx. 3/4/1983, d. Michael Elliott
Performance, BBC2, tx. 21/3/1998, d. Richard Eyre

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 14/9/1982, p. Frank Kermode
The South Bank Show: King Lear, ITV, tx. 11/1/1987
Shakespeare on the Estate, BBC2, tx. 27/10/1994, p. Michael Bogdanov

Other References
The Dresser, 1983, d. Peter Yates

Michael Brooke

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