King Lear: a mesmerizing Hopkins in a disappearing script


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.

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4 Responses to “King Lear: a mesmerizing Hopkins in a disappearing script”

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    Our household sees shows at two nearby Shakespeare theaters, and holy crow, there’s little worse than a bad acting or directorial decision that elicits inappropriate laugher. I saw an Othello two or three years ago where the lead—a movie actor who happened to be college friends with the director—was so wooden, so terribly miscast, that the audience giggled and guffawed when he killed Desdemona. It’s troubling to see talented, intelligent people put energy into such obviously ill-conceived moments.

    …but then I’ve seen a “Taming of the Shrew” interspersed with 19 pop songs that each brought the action to a halt with live tableaux of the performers striking poses as if they were in 1990s music videos. I’ve seen “Measure for Measure” preceded by a 30-minute topless Weimar cabaret. “Two Gentlemen of Verona” with karaoke and U2 songs. A joyless “As You Like It” that ended, unexpectedly, with the whole cast doing a frantic Riverdance. I’m glad theater producers and filmmakers take chances, because sometimes they pay off, but yes: “let the lines breathe” is wise, timeless advice.

  2. Dwight Green Says:

    I was disappointed, too, and have yet to finish watching it. As you say, the potential based on the resources. There were some touches I liked, such as the storm/heath scene at the end of Act II being set in a sort of tent city.

    Lear has always had critics that thought it was unactable, meant to be read instead. I thought a movie version (and not simply a recording of a live play performance) would be a perfect compromise, and it may still be…just not this version.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’ve seen some awfully bad Shakespeare, Jeff!

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    It’s worth watching to the very end – it’s chock full of terrific performances. But the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. I consider the tent city, etc., touches little more than gimmicks if you don’t have the essential rhythm of the thing down pat. They just add to the visual cacophony.

    And one always wants to yell “Hold your horses!” at Anthony Hopkins. When he drops to a whisper or fixes his gaze on someone he can take your breath away. But when he begins shouting early in a scene, there’s nowhere for him to go except to shout louder, longer. No one will leave this production thinking there wasn’t enough shouting or hitting.