Monday, 8 August 2022

On the 1982 BBC King Lear

After the 2016 version starring Don Warrington, this is the second King Lear I’ve seen. Or third, if you count the Russian film directed by Grigori Kozintsev. Or even fourth, if you count Kurosawa’s Ran

A central difference between Michael Hordern in the BBC production and Don Warrington—and I suppose most other Lears—is that Michael Hordern’s Lear is not monumental, not larger-than-life, not striving against cosmic forces. He plays Lear as old, frail, and feeble-minded, and this version seems to be a King Lear on a small scale.   

Some people may find it a disappointment, but I do like this different approach. It works. His entire performance is great, but there are three scenes I find particularly magnificent: the scene in the storm, the meeting between Lear and blind Gloucester, and the final scene with Cordelia. There is no need to talk about the final scene—the line “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,/ And thou no breath at all?” always brings tears to my eyes. But the scene of mad Lear meeting blind Gloucester is particularly good: it is a tragic scene, a cruel scene, but at the same time there’s a kind of terrible comedy in it. 

“LEAR I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid! I'll not love. Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it.” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

Michael Hordern and Norman Rodway (Gloucester) play the scene just right: it’s terrible and at the same time funny—a dark, terrible kind of funny. 

I also love the way he says the line “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.”

Another performance worthy of praise is Anton Lesser playing Edgar. When reading the text, I think there isn’t much to the role of Edgar, and yet in the hands of a fantastic actor such as Anton Lesser, he’s transformed into something more tragic, more haunting. He’s even more interesting than Edmund, portrayed by Michael Kitchen.

In the 2016 version (directed by Michael Buffong and featuring Don Warrington in the titular role), my main complaint is about Fraser Ayres as Edmund—partly because he overacts, partly because he lacks the attractiveness of Edmund. In the 1982 version, Michael Kitchen is attractive—one can understand why Goneril and Regan both fall in love with him and plot against each other—but it’s a bland, unmemorable performance.

However, that’s not my main complaint about the 1982 version—it’s the lack of comedy. King Lear is a tragedy, a bleak, devastating play, but there’s comedy in it, and I think the main problem is Frank Middlemass’s performance as the Fool. Jonathan Miller’s decision to have an old Fool, someone who has probably grown up with Lear, is an interesting one and it could work. The scene on the heath feels very different when the Fool is as old and frail as Lear. But to me, Frank Middlemass isn’t funny, so in many scenes, the Fool comes across as angry, bitter, and moralising. I much prefer Miltos Yerolemou in the 2016 version. 

The unfunny Fool almost ruins the first half of the play for me, and yet the second half is overwhelming. If you really think about it, King Lear is in some ways not very logical and realistic—some of Tolstoy’s complaints are perfectly valid—but it has a strange, overwhelming power I can’t quite explain. By the end, I’m devastated. And the 1982 version gets that right.

It is largely thanks to Michael Hordern and Anton Lesser. I also like Penelope Wilton—her girlish smile as she watches her husband gouge out Gloucester’s eyes and urges him “One side will mock another; the other too” is unnerving. And Brenda Blethyn is closer to my idea of Cordelia than Pepter Lunkuse in the 2016 version.

Despite some imperfections, the 1982 King Lear is excellent. 


  1. I like this version. I think Michael Hordern (who played Prospero in the BBC Tempest) is wonderful as Lear. Very touching, full of pathos -- not majestic, but down in the dirt, which is an absolutely valid way to play him. I agree the fool could have been better; the fool needs to be lively, quick, witty and nimble. He doesn't have to be an actual boy, but I don't think he plays as well as an old man (John Hurt was an excellent fool in the Lawrence Olivier 1983 version).

    1. Himadri disagrees with me about the Fool, saying that the director doesn't seem to see him as a comic figure. The idea is that this is a Fool who doesn't find anything funny anymore.
      I don't really buy it myself, as the lines are still funny on paper.
      You have to go watch the 2016 version though, it is excellent.

    2. I agree with you. Lear is such a dark play, you need to take the laughs where and when you can. Otherwise, the audience laughs at serious or horrific parts from the pure tension of it -- I saw one stage version where the audience burst into laughter during the blinding of Gloucestor (NOT what you want). The fool naturally provides humor, real humor, which is essential for relieving some of the tension. This presumably is why Shakespeare put a clown scene just before the death of Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra -- so that people won't start to laugh when Anthony is hoisted up to Cleopatra in his death throws (a real danger, dramatically).

      We also know the actor who originally played the fool in Lear (Robert Armin, who succeeded the more extrovert Will Kempe) was an excellent comedian, and obviously very funny -- he would have also played Touchstone and Feste, the sexton in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth, the clown in Anthony and Cleopatra, and so on.

    3. Yeah.
      And most of Shakespeare's plays have some balance anyway: the tragedies have some humour, the comedies have some darkness.
      Why did the audience burst into laughter during the blinding though? Was there something in the way the actors performed?
      As far as I know, we don't have evidence that Robert Armin played the Fool. It's most likely, but we don't know with certainty.


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