Looking at King Lear and its variants

In this post I want to look at film, television and video versions of King Lear, whether straight adaptations with Shakespeare text, or modern stories based on the characters or situations in the play.

In 1909 an American silent short was filmed by J Stuart Blackton and William Ranous (who also played the lead), for the Vitagraph company.  It only exists today in fragments.  Ranous (1857-1915) also appeared in other Shakespeare adaptations – Macbeth, Julius Caesar, but was perhaps more suited to the role of the ageing monarch displaced from his kingdom.

Over in Italy the following year a beautiful hand-tinted version of the play appeared, directed by Gerolamo Lo Savio and starring Ermete Novelli and Francesca Bertini (a talented director as well as an actress).  My thoughts on seeing this on the Silent Shakespeare BFI compilation ten years ago: ” In the lead, Ermente Novelli is touching and mesmerising, while Francesca Bertini is a charming and naive Cordelia.  Novelli’s wife plays one of the other daughters”.

Thanhouser were known for producing high quality literary dramatisations in the USA, and in 1916 they released their Lear, with the accomplished actor Frederick Warne in the lead.  Although Warne’s acting is very much in the Edwardian theatrical tradition, the film is very good, well paced, and enjoyable.

Two films appeared almost simultaneously in 1971, both very different takes on the Lear story. British theatre director Peter Brook created an unusual and difficult production which showcased Paul Scofield in the lead; it is a film which both frustrates and intrigues, as fractured as the central character.  Scofield only made rare appearances before the camera, but this is one of his most interesting roles.

Over in the USSR, Grigori Kozintsev made an atmospheric and absorbing film featuring Juri Jarvet as Lear.  Jarvet has an expressive face and, even though this film is in a language which is not Shakespeare’s original, the poetry does not suffer.  Kozintsev had already made the even more reflective Hamlet, making him (alongside Japan’s Kurosawa) the most prolific foreign language interpreter of the Bard.

1999 saw a low-budget vanity project directed by and starring Brian Blessed as the wronged king.  Although it has moments of interest (including a female Fool, played by Blessed’s wife Hildegarde Neil, herself no stranger to Shakespeare on stage or screen), Blessed tends to overdominate proceedings and fail to reach the complex heart of the character of Lear.

Straight adaptations of King Lear made for television include 1953‘s version directed by Peter Brook and starring a heavily made-up Orson Welles (much truncated, and focusing closely on the central plot point of the King and the three daughters).  The great Irish stage actor Micheal MacLiammoir plays Poor Tom (he had appeared opposite Welles’ Othello on film a couple of years earlier, playing Iago), while British actor Alan Badel is a memorable Fool.  This play was broadcast live for the Omnibus series and survives on kinescope.

In 1974 a pair of TV versions appeared – in the UK, Thames Television provided a muted version with a miscast Patrick Magee, while in the US a version filmed before a theatre audience was transmitted featuring the great James Earl Jones.  There could be no greater contrast than the one between Magee’s traditionally dressed king in crown and robes, and Jones’ close-cropped and beturbaned mythic ruler.

The BBC Shakespeare‘s complete cycle presented Lear in 1982, with Michael Hordern a human monarch.  My thoughts on this on a recent reviewing: “As the three daughters of Lear, Gillian Barge (Goneril), Penelope Wilton (Regan), and Brenda Blethyn (Cordelia) are all excellent. The eldest sisters are pure poison, plotting against their father and their land; while Blethyn gives the wronged youngest daughter quiet dignity. John Shrapnel made an excellent Kent, at times quarrelsome, at others lordly as became his hidden persona … I didn’t think at first that Michael Hordern was quite right (this production was in planning to star Robert Shaw before his early death) – but following the storm he comes into his own, and by the final act and scenes with Cordelia and following, he gives the character a human side that’s lacking from many productions – even Olivier came short of the scene where Lear recognises he is in the presence of his youngest and much wronged daughter”.

Olivier‘s version was the closing entry in his Shakespearian screen career – we also have Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III, Shylock, Orlando, and Othello immortalised in film and television.  At 75 years old he finally played Lear and although in poor health he provided a sensitive reading of the bewildered king.  It remains one of Granada Television’s greatest pieces of drama.

For the ‘Performance‘ strand on BBC television in 1998, a presentation of Lear featuring Ian Holm was based on the production which had run at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.  This was a close-up, intimate performance with storms, nudity (Lear’s), and features an excellent Edgar from Paul Rhys.  It’s a Lear of simplicity with no showy camera shots.

Ten years later another theatre version came to the screen, this time from the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ian McKellen.  Like the Holm version, this transferred pretty much intact from stage to television, and although McKellen presented a superb study of an aged father and king falling into dementia, there were other performances to enjoy including Sylvester McCoy’s Fool and William Gaunt’s Gloucester.  This is perhaps the most moving version of Lear brought to the screen, completely due to the decline of the character of Lear from great and powerful leader to broken and confused old man.

Finally, the Islington Almeida‘s version of Lear, featuring Jonathan Pryce, was filmed and presented through the subscription service Digital Theatre.  Pryce’s Lear is slightly incestuous, making the behaviour of his daughters that bit more understandable; this being said, the scenes on the heath and where the king is reunited with his beloved Cordelia are powerfully done.

Moving on to films based on the play, but not using the text of Shakespeare.

These range from Western versions (Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance, from 1954, with Spencer Tracy; Uli Edel’s TV movie King of Texas, from 2002, with Patrick Stewart); to film noir (Joseph L Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers, from 1949, with Edward G Robinson); from family sagas (Jocelyn Moorhouse’s A Thousand Acres, from 1997, with Jason Robards); to gangland dramas (Don Boyd’s My Kingdom, from 2001, with Richard Harris).   All these are successful in parts, but not as a whole.

The two versions of Jerome Weidman’s novel (Broken Lance and House of Strangers) substitute sons for daughters, but otherwise remain fairly faithful to the central family drama.  My Kingdom is rather too literal and violent but contains a fantastic central performance from Harris that can make us sad we never saw his straightforward Lear, while Robards’ tyranny set in rural America doesn’t quite gel with the parallels between his daughters and those presented within Shakespeare.

As for Patrick Stewart’s Texan baron, he is not in the right time or place to convince.  Far better to watch him as Macbeth, Prospero, or Claudius in the various Shakespeares he has performed.

Three other versions stand apart – Kurosawa’s superb Ran, from 1985, a Japanese period drama where the Great Lord’s sons turn on him; the Dogme 95 experimental film The King is Alive, where a group of tourists stranded in the desert put on the play, with strange results; and Godard‘s unclassifiable film from 1987, a strange confection which presents Burgess Meredith as ‘Don Learo’.