*. I’ll be honest and say that I had my heels dug in against this version of King Lear, directed by Richard Eyre, right from the start. The glittering lights of the City. The black SUVs gliding toward the Tower of London. This doesn’t feel right.
*. The earliest film versions of King Lear had Stonehenge as a backdrop, or men in furs and horned helmets (see what it looked like in 1909 and 1916). The actual story is set in an ancient, pagan Britain, so this isn’t far off the mark. But does it work in modern dress? Yes, for its cruelty and sense of the absurd, even its post-civilization air of collapse. But the tribal code feels out of place. Is a prime minister or a CEO more or less than an ancient king of England? I had to wonder.
*. Then there is the opening scene. I think this only makes sense as a big public show, as it’s already been made clear that Lear has decided how he’s going to divvy up the kingdom. So they might have put it on TV here. But instead it’s done in a room in the Tower among a small, select group of family and courtiers, which kind of upsets the notion of Lear asking for a public declaration of love.
*. After that, however, my cavils were mostly silenced. I still didn’t like what they made of Edgar (a nerdy academic), but this is a solid production that moves really well (coming in at just under two hours), with some excellent performances. Even Cordelia (Florence Pugh) works in this first scene, not playing a shrinking violet but a modern woman not interested in all this profession-of-love bullshit. And given what I’d seen of her in Lady Macbeth and Midsommar I had no trouble buying her resolve. A Cordelia we can believe in is a rare thing in productions of this play.
*. There’s a modern tradition of emphasizing Lear’s mental deterioration even before his semi-abdication, with suggestions of erratic behaviour and perhaps the onset of some mild dementia. This has the effect of making Goneril and Regan, who remark on this, more sympathetic.
*. That angle is really played up here, as I think we have to be on the side of Goneril (Emma Thompson) in the early going. Anthony Hopkins’ Lear comes off as downright abusive, both verbally and physically, while his men are boorish louts who even track mud into her palatial digs. We have the sense that he’s the one driving her mad at the beginning of the play, and not the other way around. We don’t see her as someone bad by nature, but rather as a society lady who snaps when pushed to her limit. Oswald (Christopher Eccleston) makes a nice complement, being a foppish personal assistant who didn’t sign on for any of this drama. Regan (Emily Watson) is the quieter, but dominant sibling. Which is not how she’s usually drawn, but after all, she’s the one who married the odious Cornwall.
*. Effective performances throughout, though I’m starting to wonder at the casting of Black actors as villains in what are otherwise mostly or all-white casts. Here we have John Macmillan as Edmund, which made me think of Sophie Okenedo as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. And while I guess it fits with the idea of Edmund’s bastardy, is that somewhere they really wanted to go?
*. It plays like The Hollow Crown adaptations too in the way the script is cut to run more naturalistically, like a quickly-edited TV drama. Don’t expect a lot of long takes and full speeches. But this is what twenty-first century Shakespeare looks and sounds like because we’ve changed too.
*. I also liked Karl Johnson as an old Fool. That part is usually played as a younger part, but here it makes perfect sense that he’d be a frail old man, a companion of Lear’s going a long way back. Plus, they can explain his disappearance by having him suffer a heart attack after the hovel scene.
*. The hovel itself is a cargo container (rather nicely turned out) that’s in a tent city of homeless. That worked as a modern update. The fight between Edgar and Edmund, however, has to be done as an MMA-style fight because obviously no one has a sword or armour (Edgar’s face is concealed behind a black balaclava). I didn’t much care for that. And finally there’s yet another underwhelming storm on the heath. I wonder if Shakespeare really knew what he was doing here, as it’s hard to work on stage as well. But he wanted a world falling into chaos so that’s what he dialed up.
*. In sum, it won me over and I came away enjoying it quite a bit, being thoroughly entertained throughout. Very much a King Lear for our time, which is as it should be.