BWW Review: KING LEAR, BBC2 and iPlayer
After the acclaimed The Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare adaptations, King Lear gets the expansive palace interiors, the all-star cast and the grim, grey cinematography - but perhaps that brilliant presentation of the Wars of the Roses plays was the high water mark for the formula. This Lear felt forced, ever so slightly pleased with itself and dare I say it, a tiny bit showy.
Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the mad king and is at his best in his quieter moments, the rage subsided, the Welsh accent poking through more clearly. Lear's strength, like that of any king, comes not with the intimidation of a voice shouting, but in the cool understanding of how to use the levers of power at his disposal. Looking into the camera, the eyes rheumy (you really do have to get the eyes right in Lear), you see the young King as well as the addled old one and Lear's tragedy flows over you.
Emma Thompson, looking scarily like "Katie Hopkins playing Goneril", is very good when ogling Edmund (a testosterone fueled, ruthlessly ambitious John MacMillan) and curtly dismissing her husband Albany, but the misogyny of the play elbows its way into one's appreciation and you can't help reflecting on how much of the villainy is heaped on to the women and the bastard, Edmund.
More British "acting royalty" is on show with Emily Watson's Regan, who can do a lustful stare too and is suitably bloodthirsty in Gloucester's infamous eye-gouging scene. Tobias Menzies is all suppressed violence as her husband, Cornwall, and adds a direct line to Game of Thrones (in which he played Edmure Tully), reminding us how much that blockbuster owes to Shakespeare.
We see far less of Florence Pugh as the banished Cordelia, but she's very good in the crucial opening scene, refusing to flatter her father and paying the price for such a display of integrity in a court that values obeisance over truth. Her off-camera death feels wrong - how could the infirm Lear disarm and kill the executioner, but this strong and bright woman been seen off?
There's a lot of intrusive music - we know the stakes, we know the tension, we even know what's coming, so the portentous strings overegg an already heady brew. The soundtrack adds to the distance between stage versions I have seen - and this production is very much a film.
That distance is perhaps most obvious in the storm scene where we see Lear in - obviously, it's a movie - wind and rain, sheltering in tents in a place reminiscent of The Jungle at Calais. In the theatre, all this is suggested and it's much easier to see it as a metaphor for the King's state of mind - and of how the storms that can blow through the consciousness of a monarch can tilt a State too.
Brexit and Trump are never far from one's mind of course, but the United Kingdom is too robust to fracture and the executive branch of the American government too important to leave in the charge of flatterers.