A new performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear recently caught my attention as I was looking through the programmes on BBC iPlayer. This performance is still available online for another sixteen days, so I suggest that you check it out!
Title: King Lear.
Playwright: William Shakespeare.
First Performed: 1606.
Director: Richard Eyre.
Length: 115 minutes.
King Lear is composed of two, interwoven narratives. The main narrative concerns itself with the king, who, in his old age, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. This was a common tale in Elizabethan England as issues of legacy, promoted by the queen’s lack of children, were popularised during this period.
In the play, Lear decides that he is going to give the most land to the daughter who claims to love him the most. His first two daughters, Goneril and Regan, conform to this way of thinking and tell the king that they love him more than words can describe. Yet his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play this game. She tells Lear that she loves him, but that she will also love a husband, should she ever marry.
This enrages Lear so much that he banishes Cordelia from his sight, marrying her off to the King of France without a dowry. This act has serious repercussions, though, as Lear begins to fall into a state of madness. Meanwhile, his remaining two daughters plot to overthrow him, tired of his constant presence, as well as the noise of his hunting parties.
As you can expect in a Shakespearean tragedy, this all ends in bloodshed. Yet this is not only the blood of Lear and his daughters, for there is a secondary narrative that runs through this play. Gloucester, Lear’s ally, has two sons: Edgar and Edmund. The latter son was born a bastard, and he holds a grudge that causes him to disrupt the other characters, punishing both his father and brother for, in his opinion, failing to value him as a true member of their family.
The BBC’s adaptation of King Lear is an interesting one, as, although it keeps to the original Shakespearean script, it is set in modern times, beginning in the heart of London. For the majority of the drama, this fusion of the old and new has a very powerful effect, as it allows the producers to add their own spin on Shakespeare’s play, without having to tamper with the original script. For example, as Gloucester helps Lear to escape from his vengeful daughters, he drives him away in an ambulance, which emphasises the sense of urgency in the play, as well as alluding to Lear’s madness.
Yet this fusion of styles does sometimes come across as confusing, and I wish, at times, that some changes had been made to the script. After all, in this drama, the fool, who mysteriously dies in King Lear at the end of the first act (some scholars claim that Shakespeare forgot about him), is shown to die of something that resembles hyperthermia. He goes into the ambulance with Gloucester and Lear, yet never comes out. This is an interesting addition to the play, as it reveals how the fool has essentially sacrificed himself to keep Lear company. The only issue is, at the end of the script, Shakespeare refers back to the fool’s death and has Lear tell everyone that he was “hanged”. The BBC drama keeps this line in, which makes the whole event seem rather confusing. After all, the fool is not hanged; he dies in the back of an ambulance.
Another interesting addition that the drama brings to King Lear is the use of the horseshoe. Lear appears to replace this horseshoe for his crown as he wears it upon his head at the height of his madness. He holds onto it throughout the drama, which emphasises how he is clinging both to his need to rule (this was what originally angered Goneril and Regan, as Lear failed to realise that, once that he had given them his land, he had no power), and also to his insanity.
I also appreciated the addition made to Gloucester’s secondary narrative. After the earl’s gruesome blinding, he is guided by Edgar (who is in disguise), hence the famous quote:
Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind – Shakespeare, King Lear.
In the play, Gloucester appears to die, unaware that it is Edgar who sits at his side, protecting him, yet in the BBC drama, Gloucester reaches out his hand to feel Edgar’s face. As he strokes it, he appears to recognise him, which provides a much more satisfactory ending to the Earl of Gloucester.
There is a lot like about this adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It has an incredible cast that includes Anthony Hopkins (Lear), Emma Thompson (Goneril), Emily Watson (Reagan), Jim Broadbent (Gloucester), Jim Carter (Kent), Andrew Scott (Edgar), Karl Johnson (the fool) and Christopher Eccleston (Oswald). With this cast, it is inevitable that there is also some fantastic acting in this drama.
There are a few interesting features, such as the horseshoe and the modern setting, that appear to add something new to the original play. Yet while I do recommend this drama, I did think that the mix of the old and new, although interesting, did make the story a little confusing. It is therefore perhaps a good idea to watch this drama, only if you already have a vague idea of what King Lear is really about.
Thank you so much for reading! You can view a list of all my reviews here.