Archive for October 27th, 2018

King Lear: a mesmerizing Hopkins in a disappearing script

Saturday, October 27th, 2018
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All old men know what King Lear is about. Every old man has a King Lear within him. At least, that’s what Goethe thought. In veteran actor Anthony Hopkins‘s case, we suspected it all along.

Shakespeare‘s King Lear has come to town on BBC/Amazon Prime, and those of us on the social media have been salivating over trailers and clips for weeks now. It’s not Hopkins’ first crack at the king – he performed it thirty years ago, but he has aged into the role that all ambitious actors wait decades to play. He gives a mesmerizing performance, flickering from flint to fire and back in split-seconds as daughters Emma Thompson and Emily Watson belittle, betray, and torment him.

Hopkins and Pugh in a BBC “King Lear”

“Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all,” says Lear. Hopkins is ripe for this role at 80 – all thrash and shout and tremor and wail. But capable of vulnerability, too, and capable of the coolly delivered drop-dead line: watch the tail-end of the trailer above, the calm fury of his “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” He’s never been  better.

Aristotle said tragedy leaves us with horror and pity. The horror was in abundance in Richard Eyre‘s all-star production, most gruesomely for the close-ups in Gloucester’s eye-gouging scene. But tenderness was in short supply. This is a remorseless production that does not pause for pity. The dramatic line moves steadily downward; the viewer never has the tragic sense things could have been different, that there’s an almost-world waiting in a parallel universe just beyond reach. But you have your heart broken, and my flinty little heart was intact by the time the final credits rolled.

In large measure, the problem is not the sword, but the scissors. Too much has been cut from this play to make it emotionally intelligible, to give it a rhythm and pacing and keep from reducing it to mere plot. Lear usually clocks in at more than three hours; this production has been pared to a skinny 115 minutes. There’s plenty of blood and punches, but little time for Lear’s humanity.

For example, this poignant speech from captured and humiliated Lear to his faithful and doomed daughter Cordelia (Florence Pugh) was jettisoned for tanks and helicopters, machine guns and army trucks in a dystopian England:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Soon she is murdered. Shakespeare’s Lear cries, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” Typically, he carries and cradles her as he croons his lament. It is one of the most heart-rending scenes in the entire tragic repertoire. Instead Hopkin’s Lear, in a prison uniform, pulls her covered corpse across stage in a makeshift cart, barking “Ho, ho, ho, ho!” Like a hepped-up hobo Santa.

The Millennials I watched it with laughed. And it wasn’t the only time in film they did. Naturally, I blamed them. But I left disappointed, and not with them. I grieved for the wasted resources. The brilliant cast deserved some room to let the lines breathe in a production that could have, should have, haunted us forever. And you don’t need rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fire for that.

This could have been the King Lear for our times. On the other hand, perhaps it is. Alas.