Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

73. Trevor Nunn’s King Lear (2008)

I’ve taken a few months off my Shakespeariation, dear readers. I presume if you are reading this blog, you want to know which films to seek out, which to avoid due to being fatally boring, and which ones are weird enough to huff some glue to watch. Well, the winter of my discontent has lasted longer than normal—chronic pain, and marathoning one’s way through tragedies gets on one’s nerves—but I think I have the equanimity to offer some rulings once again.

King Lear? Damn it. I recently interviewed the poet Gerald Stern, who prefers Lear, and I wish I had more time with him to get to the bottom of this. I suspect the adoration comes as a reader more than as a viewer, though I do not dare speak for Mr. Stern.

There’s a lot of crying in Lear. A lot of screaming. Not a small amount of whining.

King Lear

Photo & cocktail (The Vile Jelly) by Susan Lilley.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote,“I have seen and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; after two acts I have gone away physically exhausted.” That’s how I feel about Lear, or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But as I grow older, your rogue tries to be humble, and remain open to the possibility that maybe Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he wrote Lear.

King Lear cover

Trevor Nunn can be a fine director, as shown in his unparalleled Twelfth Night. And Ian McKellan is an extraordinary actor. If you’re not a Shakespeare addict, then you probably have seen him as Gandolf or Magneto. If Ian McKellan played Village Idiot #17 in a film called The Fart in the Heart of the Screaming Hole, I would watch it once. At least once.

Great Performances

The plot of King Lear is that the titular king plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters so he could retire to his dotage and let them rule securely. Before distributing the rule of these lands, he holds a flattery contest, and the youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play, understanding the deconstructionist principle that what we say bears no essential relationship to what is. She is banished, yet is swooped up in marriage with the king of France. Her older two sisters demonstrate to their father that he is no longer king, and he goes insane. Then the sisters plot against one another while defending their kingdom from France. I am missing a subplot about the bastard Edmund and his machinations to usurp his brother’s noble place in society.

King Lear Edmund

One of my contentions that I made when speaking to Gerald Stern was that the clown in King Lear is not funny. Sylvester McCoy proves me wrong. He has a funny, yet intelligent face, and he is stuck in the dialectic of despairing at Lear’s decisions and delighting at the comic opportunities such wild behavior offers him.

King Lear Sylvester McCoy

Speaking of the clown, one fascinating choice made with the script was to address one of the ambiguities of the play: when was the fool hung? Lear announces that his clown was hung in Act V, sort of like the proclamation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death at the end of Hamlet—but the character disappears from the play, and the announcement seems tacked on considering how important the fool is to this play. So Nunn has the clown hung in Act III, and McCoy delivers his soliloquy from III.2 as the soldiers prepare the noose:

King Lear Fool's Hanging

This is a brave night to cool a courtezan.
I’ll speak a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors;
No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues;
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i’ the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.

Directors, please hire Sylvester McCoy to do more work!

Ian McKellan’s performance modulates well between Lear’s self-indulgent nobility and his deteriorating mental state when confronted by the stressors of becoming disowned and homeless and betrayed. At times, he speechifies beneath a bare tree, which reminds one of Waiting for Godot. McKellan is so alive with the role.

King Lear Every Inch

Lear: “Ay, every inch a king.”

One interesting wrinkle comes from Frances Barbera’s Goneril, who weeps when Lear rails against her when exiling himself from her portion of the kingdom. The lust for power and psychodynamics of the play are not completely straightforward.

King Lear Almost Cracking

Of course, the behavior of Lear’s oldest daughters probably has some origin in knowing Cordelia, the youngest, was his favorite (“our joy”). The queen is never mentioned. Lear was probably desperatefor a male heir. Lear is really only an interesting play if we see that some of the terrible things that happen in the play were a long time coming—that what the play, as long as it is, represents is the tipping point for a wounded family.

King Lear Cordelia

Romola Garai shines as Cordelia, which is to say, she manages not to seem to Pollyannaesque. When she refuses her father’s demand for blandishments, she seems tough enough to face her father, yet frightened enough once his wrath is awakened.

King Lear Act 1

The costumes for this production are adequate, but Cordelia’s dress in Act 1 is tremendous: a cream-colored, corseted gown. With her chignon and necklace strands, Garai looks simultaneously regal and vulnerable. I don’t know if Andrew Joslin, Lorna Carmichael, or Rachel Farrimond was responsible for the dress.

I am not a cross-dresser, but I make no case for it.

However, this is still King Lear. Our clown is hung in Act III, which makes the last two acts a grind, as the two sisters plot against one another, and Edmund plots against the entire world, it seems.

This was a film adaptation of a stage version mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. From the cheap-looking sets and occasionally awkward cinematography, this Lear probably should have been a film of the theatrical performance instead. Is it cheating to just watch the first three acts? Can Mark Twain give us absolution?

The BBC will release a film version with Anthony Hopkins soon. I am not sure how many Lears I can stomach. At least one more, I am sure.

If you think you see what I am missing in Lear, please do try to correct me below.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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