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I'm a huge fan of the RSC, and have been going as much as I can since seeing The Winter's Tale about two years ago. We've not been able to go lately as our weekends have been busy, so I've been getting withdrawal symptoms, hankering for a piece of brilliant, RSC shakespeare. I immediately reached for this adaptation of King Lear.
The acting in this film is absolutely astonishing. Its almost like witnessing a real event, the dialogue being so fluent and liquid. But it's also so accessible and, even though the style is old fashioned, is played with a free and fluid motion which is very modern and breathes new life into the Shakespeare tradition.
A brief synopsis of the play: Lear is an ageing King and decides to divide his kingdom between his daughters after testing them on how much they love him. Regan and Goneril fall over themselves to express their love, while Cordelia is honest in her love, and therefore gets thrown out, her inheritance shared between her two sisters.
Then begins a downward spiral into madness and mayhem, treachery and treason, as the two sisters slowly alienate and exile their father, with dramatic effect. The play ends with the death of Cordelia and Lear, in each others arms, after a battle to take back the kingdom.
Of course the nuts and bolts of the play give no indication of the intense phsycology of the play; the relationship between Lear and his fool for example, or the troubled sub plot of the bastard son of Gloucester, Edmund, and his legitimate half brother Edgar.
The star of the show is Sir Ian Mckellan, who is perfectly adept in the lofty roll of Lear, and he acts it as if he's played the mad monarch all his life. The words roll off his tongue as if he really is making it up, and the way he plays off the others actors and actresses is spellbinding and masterful.
The surprising performance for me was that of the fool, played by Sylvester mcCoy, who will be best known by some as one incarnation of Doctor Who. He gives a special and complex performance, one that deserves praise for its honest and frank humanity, hidden so cleverly by Shakespeare under the mask of 'foolish' humour.
The other great performance in this film is by the actor Jonathan Hyde, who I remembered, strangely, from the film Jumanji. The way he changes his voice as he ceases to be Kent and goes in disguise to keep serving Lear is slightly humorous at first, and you can see his joy in playing the part by the natural way he speaks the lines.
If you want to immerse yourself in one of the greatest plays of all time, and you can't make it to the RSC for whatever reason, I would implore you to buy this version of King Lear. It can't replace the thrill of the theatre, but its the next best thing. I would advise that it is not for the fainthearted, it is not a short play, and if you're not used to the language of Shakespeare it can become slightly tiresome after a while. However, this should not put you off, I experience confusion and exhaustion occasionally when viewing such a word saturated piece of theatre, but you do get past that and begin to enjoy it.
One of the elements I look for are phrases that we use in everyday language that appear in the play - there are a few in there, so listen out for them! This DVD is the perfect rendering of theatre set to film, and should be seen to be believed.
I was lucky enough to see this wonderful performance when it was playing in Stratford so when I saw that there was a DVD release I couldn't get it fast enough! While no TV screen can equal a live stage performance (especially one by the magnificent Ian McKellen) I was not at all disappointed with the DVD.
Its no secret that Shakespeare's plays are long (I am personally of the opinion that the experience of watching most of them in the theatre would be improved by another loo break!) and much as I love Shakespeare I do find myself judging a good performance on its ability to hold my attention for the entire duration. This adaptation of possibly the darkest of the plays is among the best I have ever seen and when I watched the DVD it worked its magic once again. I was captivated throughout.
The story, for anyone who is unfamilier with the play, begins with the old King Lear demanding expressions of love from his three daughters, as he decides how to divide his kingdom up between them. The two elder are already married but both profess to love their father above all else and he duly rewards them each with a third of his kingdom, saving the best portion of it for his last and favorite daughter, Cordelia. She, however, replies in all honesty that she loves her father dearly, but only as befitting a daughter to her father for surely she must love her future husband at least as much. Lear shows this first sign that all is not well with his mind when he flies into a great rage and banishes his youngest daughter, leaving her nothing. One of her suitors agrees to take her despite this and they flee together to France.
As they start to feel their new power and become increasingly worried about the kings senility, the elder daughters start to subtly strip him of his power and status, finally refusing to let his into their homes and turning their elderly and, by this time, very distressed father out into a stormy night. Alone with his loyal fool he finds himslef wandering on a lonely moor and there meets 'poor, mad Tom', another man who has been wronged by his family as his half-brother's ambitions have driven him to flee for his life and seemingly lose is sanity. Meanwhile Lear's loyal friends find themselves tortured or killed and the entire story ends in the usual Shakesperean bloodbath as most of the cast are killed off in the final moments of the play.
The play is one of the darkest as the themes of power and madness are explored and for this reason Lear has become one of those 'milestone' characters for Shakesperean actors - to play him and play him well must be no easy feat and I have been absolutely blown away by the two performances I have seen(Corin Redgave played an younger feeling, angrier Lear a few years before while McKellan's character was noticably more feeble and confused). It is worth knowing the outline of the story as it gets quite complex at times and trying to figure out who is who and what they are doing can spoil your enjoyment (I've found this out fom experience and always take the time to at least read an outline of the story when going to see a new Shakespeare play).
For those who did see it on stage there are some small changes in the DVD, perhaps the most notable of these being that the full frontal nudity which caused such a stir has been omitted. There is also the addition some scenery which would not have been possible in a theatre (the moor, for example) and I am not sure that this was really necessary. That is a matter of personal preference for me - unless a play is being properly made into a film (such as the wonderful adaptation of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio) then I prefer it to be shown as a play, just as it would be on stage. Any attempt to find a 'middle ground' usually looks a little cheap, in my opinion.
This is, however, just nitpicking when you consider the sheer quality of the acting (not just McKellen, who played a very old and convincingly feeble Lear to perfection, I though the whole cast were amazing and Sylvester McCoy was outstanding as the Fool) and direction then the scenery hardly matters. All in all I think this will be a keeper and I anticipate watching it again and again!
The DVD also contains a couple of extras - a very interesting half hour film of an interview with Ian McKellen and a couple of other insights into the making of the play (be aware, these others are just text - to be read off the screen).
Overall, this is a magnificent play, starring one of our greatest living actors and I highly, highly recommend it.
Also posted on Ciao.