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Thread: King Lear in film

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    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley

    King Lear in film

    I found Peter Brook's once-famous film version of King Lear (starring Paul Scofield as Lear) hiding among nothing in particular on YouTube. (Don't worry, the logo goes away after a few minutes). Like Lear himself, the movie seemed to have fallen on hard times, although a quick Google search found it still heralded as a masterpiece. In 1971, about seven years before I first saw it, Brook's Lear had received mixed reviews. One critic compared it to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (not then a compliment). Another approvingly noted its commonality with Samuel Beckett's theater of the absurd. Although set in a mythic Britain (Lear is a legendary figure who is said to have reigned about the time of the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah), Brook's film is steeped in the political violence of its own day. It is is bleak, hopeless, and cruel. And it never lets up.

    Brook, for starters, was breaking the rules. Everyone knew that King Lear begins in the lush splendor of a (supposedly) Medieval court and descends into a living hell where political loyalty, family love, and even language fall apart. But in Brook's film, Lear's court is itself a sort of hell--cold, brooding, and fearful. It is a place of stone where Lear sits within an enormous lithic throne. His voice is a harsh, self controlled whisper, almost a hiss, suggestive of the cruelty that will soon be visited upon him. His fatal flaw is not the folly of vanity (as your High School English teacher promised you) but cruelty itself, even and especially towards those he loves--those he thinks love him. Perhaps this Lear simply wants it to stop. Maybe that is why he is stepping down--to be rid of the man in the chair.

    All this makes for a credible opening scene. The estrangement of Cordelia is not out of character for this Lear. He doesn't really even really blow his stack at her. He just gets pissed she won't play his game and tells her to get the f*ck out. Scofield balances the genuine anger and implied menace masterfully. There is no sentimental blubbering over his hurt feelings. Brook must have assumed that no one would buy that in 1971.

    But the problem with Brook's approach and Scofield's characterization is that they risk losing the dramatic force of Shakespeare's narrative: if Lear is already in hell, then where is there for him to fall? Brook addresses the problem cinematically, that is to say, visually, by diminishing of the illusion of size. Lear's throne is a massive and improbably phallic affair that doubles for the king during the opening sequence. He sits within it and, when facing away, the great mass is all there is of him. His crowned head is enormous on the screen. When Lear goes among his people, he wears a piled fur that gives him exaggerated bulk and a peculiar, animalistic hump. He looks like what he is: a dominant beast bristling up to give himself an intimidating physical appearance. This illusion of size is precisely what Lear loses as his position deteriorates. It is what Brook takes from him.

    What dwarfs the fallen Lear is the landscape into which he is thrown. The harsh, white and black terrain (filmed in Denmark in dead winter) evokes a apocalyptic wasteland more than Shakespeare's English countryside. It seems above all a psychological landscape: a world without God or morality or compassion. Apart from Lear's stronghold (and a few standing stones), its only features are a few scattered fortresses. Filmed at a distance, they seem like living things buttressed against the very cruelty they cultivate within. Lear's artificial might cannot endure the unforgiving truth of this world, and he is quickly reduced from the illusion of a man to what Shakespeare calls the thing itself.

    But Brook's cinematic expression of the king's disintegration has its limits. He takes one dare too many with Lear's famous soliloquy on the heath ("Blow winds and crack your cheeks,", etc.). This must be an active affair, a last grasp at dignity, a wild raging at the storm, for here indeed Lear's world and mind come apart at the seams. Yet Schofield's Lear presents much of the speech flat on his back--like a great, felled tree. And though he eventually rises, he seems more drunk than mad. Once again, Brook attempts to express the internal visually, here through the wildness of the storm itself. Unfortunately this sequence is rather crudely made in cinematic terms and the results are more confusing than moving. (Granted the special effects are almost 50 years old--but remember 2001: A Space Odyssey had been released three years earlier). In the end, the all-important scene is disappointing--and this is the film's single greatest flaw.

    But the dropped ball is quickly retrieved by Jack MacGowran, a stage actor famous for performances in Samuel Beckett's plays (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, etc.). MacGowan brings a 20th century absurdist reading to the part of Lear's fool. The casting was brilliant and even foreshadowed even by Shakespeare; the Bard's fool mixes absurdities and insights so deftly they are hard to tell apart--much as Beckett's clowns later came to do. The effect of the fool's bizarre, chummy, and far from funny banter is to further crumble Lear's reality--but now from within. MacGowan's fool is an uncomfortable mirror of his master--what would eventually be called an unconscious mind. His unexpected importance to the narrative reaches its apex on the heath and immediately afterwards in a ruined hovel. The fool's total and unexplained absence from the rest of the play is an often debated Shakespearean mystery. Brook seems to follow the psychological theory that after Lear's madness, the fool becomes redundant; in effect the fool becomes Lear or becomes integrated into his personality in any case. Brook has him stay with Lear longer than Shakespeare does. The fool accompanies the king all the way to Dover before their mysterious farewell: "I'll go to supper in the morning", says Lear. "And I'll go to bed at noon", replies the fool. In the Brook's film, a cloth barrier, symbolic at least of a stage a curtain, falls between them. But somehow they seem to be talking about death.

    The remainder of the plot is well known, and I will not repeat it here. Brook's film does not stray far from it. Judith Worth's performance as Goneril is competent (in fact rather good) but wholly conventional. Barry Stanton's Oswald is discreetly unsettling. He maintains the detached affect of a psychopath who betrays no scruple at the ghastly violence he makes possible (and enjoys). Creepiest of all--and still upsetting after all these years--are the voyeuristic/sadistic qualities of Susan Engel's Regan and Patrick McGee's Cornwall. While Engel is clearly not as versatile an actress as Worth, her wicked princess outdoes Worth's cinematically because she is physically more appealing and seems like she might be merciful at first; but of course, she is not. It is genuinely chilling to watch her curled on a couch, curiously watching Gloucester's bound interrogation if it were a kinky amusement. And all the more so when her husband, whose trimmed facial hair and detached expression make him look like something from a Velvet Underground album cover, carve his prisoner's eyes from their sockets with a tablespoon. The gorey image is brief, but the agonized cries persist. The level of violence would not have been shocking for Shakespeare's stage, but it was almost unheard of in the cinema 47 years ago. There is that authenticity to this uncomfortable and cruel version of King Lear. Shakespeare was trying to be upsetting, too.

    I have finally a personal anecdote touching on the end of this film. I fist saw Peter Brook's King Lear during a freshman college film festival. That stupid boy (me) had the play on his English literature syllabus but had not yet read it. Consequently he had no idea about the resolution of Cordelia's story, a moment Brook dispatches with a short, sharp shock. I can still feel the bottom falling out of my heart. Thank you, Peter Brook, for bringing me the moment as Shakespeare intended me to have it--unanticipated and irrecoverable. I have never forgotten it.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 07-24-2018 at 07:22 PM.

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