BBC King Lear

From October 26th to November 2nd, I had the opportunity of viewing, in installments, the BBC version of King Lear. I had several problems with this production, first and foremost being that it was, in fact, a BBC production.

BBC versions of Shakespeare plays are, as a rule, colorless and bland. They reflect what seems an almost deliberate attempt on the part of the producers to tame The Bard, to dampen the fiery passions contained within each work with a staid, even-keeled treatment of character and plot. It is unclear why exactly the men at the helm of the BBC feel it necessary to drain the life out of the things they choose to impart to their viewers and listeners; perhaps it's that good, stout English reserve, stiff upper lip and all that, but applying such a stuffy, repressed attitude to Shakespeare is nothing short of blasphemy.

The first example of the under-done quality of the BBC Lear comes as early as Act I Scene II, with Edmund's two short soliloquies, wherein he rails at the law of primogeniture and his own bastardy and vows to plot his way to inheritance. This is, as the Brits would say, a "juicy bit," and offers the audience its first glimpse into the villainous character of Edmund. In other productions, this scene is played with wild-eyed rage, with bile and belligerence, conveying the dark inner-workings of this treacherous creature and, in contrast with the outer calm displayed in his conversation with Gloucester, his demoniacally duplicitous nature. However, the BBC version has Edmund mouthing the lines like the host of some TV documentary. Perhaps this is a more subtle Edmund, the cool Machiavel with ice water for blood, and any director would be within his rights to shape him so. I, however, prefer my villains with a bit more spice.

Another blunder of production involves casting an old man in the part of the Fool. No doubt this move was designed to contrast the other old fool, Lear, but the concept never pans out. Instead of the traditional impish youth, popping up here and there with jibes, gambols, flashes of merriment, and a venomous acid tongue of reproach for Lear's lack of judgement, instead of what should rightly be the contrast between youthful wisdom and aged foolishness, we are presented with a doddering clown in mime make-up and a stupid hat. All the vivacity and exuberance vital to the impact of the Fool's words are, once again, drained away by the BBC director with this misguided casting choice. Add to this the fact that the actor portraying the Fool seems tired, if not somewhat drunk. Again, the director is fully within his rights to present the characters as he sees fit; and again he has made what I feel is the wrong choice.

Lastly we come to Cordelia. It is always a mistake (and, unfortunately, a prevalent one) to portray the heroines of Shakespeare as charming bunnies, all sweetness and light, weepy and gooey at the drop of a hat. In keeping with the attempts to alter Edmund and the Fool, one would suppose that the director would try some new slant on Cordelia: perhaps a more dynamic, more forceful young woman, indignant in the beginning, tender in the end, yet strong and certain, displaying the element of independence present in her lines, yet so often down-played by directors. It is here that the BBC director opts for tradition, serving up the usual milky Cordelia.

Over the summer I read King Lear and subsequently viewed as many different productions as I could get my hands on, including those by Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier. The latter was, in my opinion, the best, even with the usual Olivier hatchet job treatment of the script. It is superior in its portrayal of the characters, realizing all the potential in each. This is something the BBC production fails to accomplish. The BBC version, it should be mentioned, features a few characters that shine, such as Kent and the wicked Regan, but all in all the majority of characters are less than they could be.

While loyal to the text of the play, the BBC King Lear ultimately fails, due to its lack-luster realization of the dramatis personae. The term "style over substance" comes to mind in conjunction with this production. While style may triumph over substance in so many areas of our daily lives, in the realm of Shakespeare it must never be allowed such dominance. In Shakespeare, substance must always reign supreme.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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