King Lear on PBS Website
by, 04-08-2012 at 11:59 PM (939 Views)
For those interested, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) has posted the entire video of the King Lear performance staring Sir Ian McKellan. It is well worth seeing for any Shakespearean aficionado.
As it turned out I had started reading Lear just a few days before stumbling across the video. Very fortuitous. So I read along while watching, one Act each night during this holy week. It was quite a fitting read for Christ's passion week. King Lear is arguably Shakespeare's most religious play, and despite the surface paganism (Shakespeare had to fit it to the source story's setting), his most Christian play, and, if I may venture into some debatable territory, his most Catholic play. I'll leave it to you as to whether it's Anglo Catholic or Roman Catholic.
Why it's so fitting for the Passion week is that the central theme of Lear is arriving at wisdom through suffering. At the heart of the play is the suffering Lear and his doppelganger, Gloucester. Their suffering goes beyond whatever they have have done, and so becomes the metaphor for the human condition. Lear says at one point, "I am a man more sinned against then sinning" and while that is true it was his sin that set in motion the tragic events. Every single character sins at some point, except Cordelia. Sin is at the heart of all the action; the values of nobility are undermined by the values of Machiavellian court; human impulses linked to savagery and lust are contrasted against family bonds and fellowship, and only when Lear has been reduced to his most humble self does he reach redemption and then enlightenment, from commanding King to no more than a lunatic scrambling across the moor to finally a prisoner. But a happy prisoner, because he has redeemed himself to his beloved Cordelia. If they go to prison, they go together in family love.
- King Lear, Act 5, Sc 3No, no, no, no. Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage. 
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news. And we’ll talk with them too, 
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out,
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. 
Ah, what a great passage, and now that I have a son, I know exactly what Lear feels.
As to the rendition of the play, I have mixed emotions. McKellan is absolutely brilliant! In fact I think he has now defined the role. This is the best Lear I have ever seen, better than Lawrence Olivier's. I have heard Gielgud performed on audio, and I much admired that. I wish I could have seen Gielgud visually to compare. Well, McKellan is it. Not only does he completely look the part, speak the part, act the part, down to the minor mannerisms, he reminds me of my grandfather, who was a sort of King Lear himself.
As to the rest of the cast - eh, so-so. None of them really overwhelmed me, though there were some good moments. I was dissatisfied with how much they skipped from the actual play, and it wasn't insignificant. The characters other than Lear come across as flatter than Shakespeare intended. The acting is one reason, but the cuts inhibited them from getting fuller. And I was appalled that in Act 3, the Fool is hanged. That is not in the play. The Fool just disappears and Lear at one point wonders what has happened to him and at another point off the cuff says he was hanged without any knowledge of such an event. The Fool just disappears and that has it's own significance. I can argue that the fool shown hanged distorts the meaning of the Fool's role. But hey.
Also while you're on the PBS page, you might want to check out the interview with McKellan. The link is there on the right side of the page. He really has great insight into the character. He comes across as so humble for such a great actor. But I will have to say, with all due respect, he misunderstands the meaning of the ending. Lear transcends with the final vision of Cordelia’s moving lips. Ultimately the play ends with heavenly justice.
Nonetheless, here is a free dramatization to what I consider the greatest play ever written. If you do watch it, stop back and let me know what you think.