The fifth season of the BBC's cycle of Shakespeare plays opens tonight (at 8 p.m. on channels 22, 26 and 32) with a stark and eloquent "King Lear." Michael Hordern, with a great, sad basset hound face, gives truth to the fool's line, "thou shouldst not have been old until thou hadst been wise."
This tale of man's betrayal by his children has often been called an unperformable play, because the passions and rages it calls for are so immense. Director Jonathan Miller scaled the production values down, setting it on a nearly bare stage with plain wooden floorboards, making no attempt to create realistic forests or castles. The storm that symbolizes the turmoil in Lear is clearly a theatrical storm fabricated with pelting water, flashing lights for lightning and the sound effect of thunder, rather than a demonstration of a television studio's technical expertise.
It was an intelligent choice. A realistic Lear might reduce this play of familial violence to a Jacobean "Dallas," with Goneril and Regan giving J.R. Ewing a run for his money. Miller's bow to television is in his intimate use of the camera to zoom in on facial expressions and informative juxtapositions of characters, which for the most part puts the viewer close to the action.
There are times when this intimacy works against the play, however, notably in the storm scene, when Miller limits the camera to a head shot of Lear and the fool. More distance might have given the king more majesty, as it is hard to think him a ruler when rain is running off his nose. Miller set the play in what he calls "theatrical limbo," and indeed there are times when the vacant background and undefined playing area are strongly reminiscent of "Waiting for Godot."
There are two parallel stories of filial perfidy in "King Lear." The Earl of Gloucester has two sons, Edgar, who is legitimate and honest, and Edmund, a bastard and a betrayer. The gradual treachery of Lear's two eldest daughters, as they usurp more than the kingdom he has given them by taking away his soldiers and, in effect, his self-respect, is of course the focus of the play, but Gloucester's fate, betrayed by Edmund and blinded by Regan, is no less chilling.
Lear's rage is not just at his daughters but at his own foolishness, his pride and his insensitivity. Mere anger at being wronged is not enough to make a tragedy; it is man's realization of his own part in his downfall that adds the necessary dimension. And the main problem with Hordern's otherwise graphic performance is that there is too much self-pity in his madness, too far a fall from his height, not enough sense of his redeemed social conscience. The conception of Anton Lesser's Edgar's feigned madness as a gibbering, drooling idiot was also a mistake, overkill for the small screen, particularly as he is costumed as Jesus Christ on the cross, complete with holes in his palms.
But the essential drama is developed clearly and the three hours do not seem terribly long. Gillian Barge and Penelope Wilton as Goneril and Regan are thoroughly evil, and John Shrapnel's Earl of Kent, who later disguises himself as a bald servant in order to serve the king who foolishly banished him, is the essence of compassion. Miller, who with this production relinquishes the added job of executive producer, has given this series a clearly conceived and well-realized "Lear."