There were two revivals in 2018 – the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production in a transfer to the Duke of York’s in London’s West End, and the RSC’s back at Stratford-upon-Avon after a season in New York.
I had been lucky to see both of these on their first outings, so looked in vain for a new live Lear experience. Not seeing any coming up on the horizon – thanks to the excellent, but low key website, Touchstone - I was, however, made aware of (and missed) two shows at the Edinburgh Festival that relate to the tragedy – King Lear (Alone) and Trump Lear.
I did also manage to catch the marvellous Debs Newbold’s storyteller version at the Greenwich Theatre in February, thinking some full production of the play would come along, but not so. After The Year of the King a while ago, 2018 was looking comparatively thin.
How could one make up for this shortfall in an interest, which some say is an addiction? On screen, that’s how. Not live, but recorded. Or, in one case, broadcast.
James Earl Jones took the title role in a production, filmed live in Central Park, New York in 1974, that was, in its own way, revolutionary. Each character of the royal family was played by a person of colour, a precursor to the blind casting debates current in British theatre. It was an experience stretched across time and culture. It is not really the point of this blog to review but, as I have said elsewhere, it is inevitable I may pass some comments on the productions I view. Jones is now 87, so it would be enticing, but near impossible I expect, to see what he would make of the role nearly 45 years later. Of course, he has ascended other heights: his voice has been used as Darth Vader in Star Wars films and Mufasa in The Lion King.
I had been alerted to Anthony Hopkins having another stab at the role - this time on television. He has been quoted as saying he will not act on stage again after his 1986 King Lear at the National Theatre in London. The BBC followed up Hopkins’s Sir in The Dresser, with another sometime regent, Ian McKellen, as Norman, the backstage assistant of the title. (I twice got to move costumes from the 1986 production when the National moved its store. I don’t remember if I laid hands on one that had been used for the actor playing maddened monarch.) Both Lears – the one played by Hopkins's Sir and his own in this year’s television production – were engrossing in their own ways.
A personal regret and mystery revolves on how one missed Ian Holm as the king in 1998 at the National. It was a rich reward, then, to find a copy of the DVD in the video library of The College of St Barnabas, Lingfield, where I moved in May to take up a new post. It was a film of another stage production with lots of candles, fire and dark, foreboding shadows – almost compulsory in Lear on stage and film. Holm’s reaction to waking to Cordelia in Dover, in which he shrieks ‘You do me wrong to take me out of the grave’ as though being tormented by a devil was chilling. Each actor has the chance of cutting a new facet from this gem of a play.
In September found myself in a small theatre in Surrey to watch the relay of Ian McKellen’s reprise of the role and production I had delighted in last year. There were glimpses of the London audience – young, not a spare seat in the house. With our auditorium not a third full, and me one of the youngest there at 62, it was an odd experience. But, despite the occasional clash of microphones, it inevitably provided some fresh insights into the role. An accomplished actor on stage and screen, McKellen, aided by some intense close-ups, ensured you were invited into his internal action in a way that some of the other actors did not have the experience to draw on.
Last outing for the year was Kirol Lir a Soviet Russian film with a strangely staring, almost immobile Jüri Järvet as the usurped monarch. Wikipedia says the king's voice was later put in by another actor. The bleak, stark landscapes, with long, sometimes puzzling processions on foot, horseback or in carriages evoked memories of what I thought may have been a precursor to the superb Peter Brook film with Paul Scofield. They were made the same year so it is entertaining, but probably pointless, to speculate if one could somehow have influenced the other.
So here we are, November and still not a King Lear in sight. Except, of course, for Jack Lear at Northern Stage in the new year, with Barrie Rutter (who played the royal version for Northern Broadsides in 2015) as the eponymous trawlerman filleting his business between his daughters. I have a sneaking suspicion I may be there.