BBC/Playground Entertainment/Ed Miller
By the time I drifted languidly across the halfway point of director Richard Eyre’s new TV adaptation of ‘King Lear’, I was firmly on side with ‘evil’ sisters Goneril and Regan (Emma Thompson and Emily Watson), particularly when they were plucking Gloucester’s eyes out.
In this formidably dull adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most electric tragedies, in which cantankerous King Lear misguidedly entrusts Britain to his least worthy daughters, the most one could look forward to was another round of the sisters’ fatigued sadism, favoured in particular by Regan (played with screeching relish by Emily Watson), who took every opportunity to yap like a vindictive terrier at anyone brazen enough to cross her screen. To be fair, having been offered only the South West while her siblings were on for the rest of the country, I would be pretty offended too.
She joins a cacophony of clamouring characters. Everyone, it seems, has something to shout about, whether it’s Anthony Hopkins’ Lear bombastically bemoaning in no uncertain terms pretty much everything, or a wronged Earl of Kent (played with resonating authority by Jim Carter), and even an incongruously camp and comedic turn from Christopher Eccleston, as mean-spirited messenger Oswald. There’s enough huffing and puffing to blow every shred of dignity and subtlety down, but at least when it comes from Regan and Goneril it’s actually fun.
The remainder of the production is not. Eyre’s vision is myopic at best but arguably closer to non-existent. This two-hour TV film appears to be entirely predicated upon the idea that veteran Welshman Anthony Hopkins, who has just turned 80 himself, would be in command of the titular role.
And he does an admirable enough job – thundering out capriciousness, fury and fatigue in equal measure, his rubicund visage encapsulating the King’s weary descent into madness (here, in accordance with many recent adaptations, presented as Alzheimer’s) more immediately than any amount of shouting.
But beyond corralling a large troop of fine British actors onto screen, Eyre’s job appears minimal. The action appears to have been neatly and lazily transplanted from stage to screen with only threadbare embellishments to the setting or pacing. Indeed, we are essentially privy to a bog-standard theatrical production with some high definition cameras bouncing about the place like dodgems.
Perhaps the most glaring faux-pas is the decision to place the play in a present-day UK setting. Modernising Shakespeare in this way can be absolutely mesmerising when appropriate and thoughtfully engineered. This is most saliently demonstrated in Ralph Fiennes’ superb cinematic adaptation of ‘Coriolanus’, where a fractured Rome is reconstructed amidst Yugoslavian urban turmoil.
But barely a scrap of the same imagination can be found here. Eyre capitalises on none of the liberating mobility of cinema and scenes are simply incarcerated in updated versions of the rooms that housed the original play. Lear’s hall, from which he dissects his kingdom, is a bland, stone chamber in the Tower of London, indistinguishable from any other century but for a glass table and a dozen guards hugging rifles. Forest remains forest, and Goneril and Regan’s estates are still just grand National Trust interiors.
But worse is when montages of superficial modernity are just thrown at us, desperately attempting to provide an illusory skin of innovation. The film opens with Apprentice-esque shots of The Shard, as though Anthony Hopkins is merely the understudy of Lord Sugar. Later, a deranged Lear pushes a shopping trolley around a ‘60s shopping precinct strewn with garbage, whilst the hooded homeless lie strewn about him. It comes across as a strangely insulting way to shoehorn contemporary urban issues into Shakespearian tragedy.
The incongruity of this setting can also lead to unintended moments of hilarity. The Duke of Kent, upon being banished by the King, famously remains in the kingdom in heavy disguise. Cue, in this adaptation, a close-up shaving montage and homage to the Gillette razor, before the appropriation of a woollen beanie. That, apparently, will do as a fool-proof way to remain unseen in 2018.
Similarly, the Duke of Gloucester’s wronged son, Edgar (Andrew Scott), flees the well-equipped army hunting him by hiding behind a small tree 50-feet away. This kind of translational indolence simply doesn’t work.
Nor do the bizarre reverse anachronisms. Kent is said to be in ‘the stocks’ when we’ve just seen him held crouched at gunpoint. Antiquated references to the portentous movements of celestial orbs are justified by having footage of a solar eclipse hovering on HD screens on the walls of Edgar’s study.
These problems are, in many cases, hallmarks of a production that simply doesn’t have the budget to pull off a cinematic adaptation of a grand, literary epic. Eyre attempts to encompass that which could not be shown on stage, like the large climactic battle sequences, but unsurprisingly cannot do them justice. Instead we get some stock footage of guns firing on Salisbury Plain, and people running around a single bus stop whilst pyrotechnics flash in the background.
‘King Lear’ slips down a strange and unsatisfying crevice between media: never having the assuredness to stick solely to the theatre, nor the budget and vision to craft true cinema. Buoyed on decent performances alone, this lukewarm adaptation does justice to neither Shakespeare nor film.