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Friday, October 6, 2017

Anthony Hopkins as King Lear

I just heard the great news about Anthony Hopkins as King Lear — how exciting!

I can’t wait to see it. Directed by Richard Eyre, it is filming soon, and will be broadcast for BBC2 and Amazon in 2018.

It is not every day that an actor of his magnitude and talent takes on Shakespeare.

Anthony Hopkins
at the Tuscana Sun Festival, 2009
Wikimedia Commons

The list of other cast members is very impressive.

Emma Thompson will play Goneril, Emily Watson will play Regan, and Florence Pugh will play Cordelia.

Jim Broadbent will play Gloucester, with Andrew Scott as his son Edgar. 

Jim Carter will play Kent, and Christopher Eccleston will play Oswald.

I am mostly pleased with the cast, especially Hopkins as Lear, Broadbent as Gloucester, and Jim Carter as Kent. Those are truly inspired choices!

I am eager to see Andrew Scott and Emily Watson. They are great actors, and I am excited to see them do some Shakespeare.

However, my biggest disappointment is Emma Thompson. 

I once admired her as an actress, especially her work with Kenneth Branagh in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Her writing and acting in Sense and Sensibility was just incredible.

But since then, I have grown less and less enamored of her as an actress.

And her hatred of England really bothers me. 

Last year, she referred to England as a “tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, I mean really, a cake-filled, misery laden, grey old island.”

I don’t get involved in politics, or political debate. I don’t hate “luvvies” — but to insult England like that is just unacceptable.

I think the fact that she does not appreciate England, has had an impact on her career. I can’t remember the last time I saw her in a role where she really shined.

What also concerns me about this production is the creative choice to set the play “in a fictional version of the present day, with Sir Anthony's Lear presiding over a totalitarian military dictatorship in England.”


Not only is this a uninspired choice, and a sure way to make the play even more depressing than it already can be, but it is also plain wrong.

To make the England in the time of King Lear like a totalitarian state is to fundamentally misinterpret the play.

It is a complete mistake to portray King Lear as a tyrant.

If you want to set Macbeth in a Scotland that resembles a militaristic dictatorship, that makes sense. Ralph Fiennes made Coriolanus in a similar setting. That makes sense.

You could even set Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet in a totalitarian state.

But King Lear? It makes no sense.

Last year, I saw Simon Russell Beale as King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes, for the National Theatre. It also set the play in an England that resembled Nicolae CeauČ™escu’s Romania.

That production depicted King Lear like a tyrant from the very beginning.

I wrote a review of that production -- here.

The problem with depicting Lear as a tyrant from the start is that it destroys the entire tragedy of the play.

The tragedy of the play is the fact that King Lear was a good man, a good king, for the entirety of his reign — until that fateful decision to divide England between his daughters.

He was good enough to raise at least one truly good daughter, Cordelia, who does truly love him.

He was not good enough to have kept his other daughters from becoming monsters. But can we really lay the blame for his bad daughters solely at his feet? No, we can’t.

King Lear was so good that he even got a man like Kent, a truly good man and a truly faithful servant, to serve him and love him.

I could go on, but you get the point.

If the character of Lear starts the play as a tyrant, then it robs Cordelia and Kent, and others, of their responses and their plotlines.

The whole play centers around the fact that King Lear, a great king, has made a very bad and short-sighted decision, and stubbornly does not understand that the kingdom he worked so hard to create and command, can become very rotten, very fast.

King Lear misunderstands power. It is elusive. He had it, and as soon as he tried to divide it, it explodes. The more he tries to correct his mistake, he makes matters worse.

He is a great king who has made the worst decision in his reign — and once it is made, everything falls apart.

As I wrote in my review of the National Theatre’s version last year: “If Lear is a tyrant, then it turns the entire play upside down and turns it inside out. It makes Lear a bad guy, and everyone who was bad is now good.”

If Lear is a tyrant, a military dictator, then we should be rooting for Goneril and Regan! We should hope that King Lear dies as soon as possible!

We should hate Cordelia for loving him, and we should hope that she will die, too!

If Lear is bad, then we should hope that Kent never gets to him, and helps him. We should hope that Kent fails.

All of those characters, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund etc. -- all of them become an incredible waste of our time, when we are impatient to see Lear the tyrant die. 

If Lear is depicted as a bad or as a dictator, then it is no longer a tragedy — it is theatre of the absurd.

If the purpose of this new King Lear, directed by Richard Eyre, is to score some political points against England, England as it is today, then I won’t watch more than five minutes of this new production.

England was great. England is great. I expect it to be great for a very long time.

England is not only great in spite of bad monarchs, but also because of them. For every bad monarch, there were men and women who fought back, and defied them.

Without that push and pull, we would not have so many of the freedoms we enjoy today.

England has survived so much turmoil, from within and from without, that it has created such a vibrant and incredible culture -- and the culture that emerged from England has become the world's dominant culture. 

I think this TV production should make it lavishly colorful and sumptuously designed, in an England as heart-breakingly beautiful as possible. 

It would demonstrate that England’s remarkable, important, and proud history of the monarchy was not always glorious, did not always have a happy ending, and that even the best of monarchs can damage what was so good about it.

That would be a fairer and far more accurate depiction of England’s history. 

It would also hew much closer to what Shakespeare was really after, when he originally wrote this play.

A TV production like that would be remembered, and treasured forever.

It would be a real shame if this production was as dark and as gloomy as it appears it might be. 

It would be a shame to waste so much great talent, and so much effort, to make a dreary and cold King Lear. 

If it is a joyless and political scolding, I doubt it will be remembered for long.

David B. Schajer

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