Archive for November 23rd, 2018

King Lear: a ruler who thinks power is more important than love

Friday, November 23rd, 2018
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Hopkins as Lear, Florence Pugh as Cordelia

A few weeks ago we wrote about Anthony Hopkins‘s mesmerizing performance in a BBC production that squanders a lot of opportunities. We’ve been thinking about the play since.

So has the Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout, who seems to be an expert on King Lear, at least from the number of recent productions he references in his article in Commentary magazine (thanks for the heads-up Frank Wilson). Glenda Jackson‘s performance of the role is coming to Broadway next April – according to him, that will be the third Broadway production of William Shakespeare‘s masterpiece in the last six decades. “Why were American versions of King Lear so uncommon for so long? Because it is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to music, an all-encompassing super-drama fraught with complexities that pose challenges of understanding to the playgoer.” Regional performances have more than filled the gap, however, making it one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

Here’s where the BBC production with Hopkins comes in: “Too often, however, the quest for ‘relatability’ results in modern-dress stagings whose every element seems to have been determined in advance by an arbitrary concept superimposed on the text by the director rather than arising organically from it. Some, such as the Eyre/Hopkins TV Lear, work reasonably well on their own restrictive terms, but others have been unconvincing, on occasion even preposterous. The worst Lear I have ever reviewed, directed by Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, turned the play into a tale of Eastern European gangsters whose opening scene was set in a men’s room with a working urinal.” I would argue the same for the Eyre/Hopkins chop suey production, which mangles the text.

He argues “Shakespeare’s plays work best when performed without scene breaks in open-stage productions that employ a bare minimum of props and scenery” – a contention that was made by Prof. Peter Styron at the University of Michigan, during my own undergraduate days.

Is King Lear petty? Not in many of the performances: “He is a ruler of towering stature who makes the fatal mistake of supposing that power is more important than love, then discovers the world as it really is, cold and hostile to the vanity of human wishes. ‘Is man no more than this?’ Lear cries at the piteous spectacle of the half-naked Edgar trembling in the storm, and in an instant he is invaded and conquered by self-doubt. To ‘humanize’ such a titan by playing him naturalistically is to diminish the pathos of his brutal humiliation.”

He concludes: