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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

King Lear
BBC Play Of The Month 1975 and YouTube    March 2024

Sometimes a character actor can achieve a more textured and real characterisation than a star might, and in the process illuminate and enrich a play in fresh and unexpected ways.

Michael Hordern (1911-1995) is a British actor you know, even if the name is not immediately familiar. In his many, many supporting (and occasionally starring) roles in theatre, film, television, radio and even cartoon voice-overs he sometimes seemed ubiquitous and always solidly there.

Hordern first played King Lear onstage in 1969, for director Jonathan Miller, and that production served as the basis for this 1975 BBC Play Of The Month version, now lurking in YouTube's vaults.

If they do not hit some of the towering heights of passion and tragedy we expect from the play, Miller and Hordern bring to it an immediacy, accessibility and reality too many other productions lack, making it an excellent introduction to the play for beginners and delivering satisfying surprises for even the most experienced Shakespeareans.

Director Miller clearly had three keystones for his vision of the play simplicity, reality and intimacy. The play is done in an almost bare and largely dark studio space, with the sense of changing locations created by lighting and camera angles.

The speaking style throughout is realistic and conversational there is no recitation or Grand Acting going on here and the in-their-face intimacy of the camera makes us more participants in every encounter than outside observers.

As a result, moments in the play that in too many productions are self-contained arias now flow from the dialogue around them more naturally. Lear's sudden anger at Cordelia for not flattering him enough doesn't come out of nowhere, as Hordern goes from quietly self-satisfied to quietly annoyed.

The evil sisters are not Panto villains, their dark sides exposed only by the cold calculation Sarah Badel brings to Goneril's every word and the hint of sly self-amusement in Penelope Wilton's Regan.

(The one performer most hurt by this quiet and underplayed style is Angela Down, who can't help making Cordelia seem priggish and holier-than-thou.)

In the alternate tradition of playing the Fool as an older man, Frank Middlemass makes him less a servant than Lear's oldest and most loving friend, their scenes together particularly moving.

Hordern continues to play Lear as simply an old man in pain rather than a tragic symbol. For the first time in my experience of the play he actually talks to the thunder and lightning in the Storm Scene, rather than just shouting over it.

There is, of course, a loss to this realistic and conversational mode. The play doesn't hit all the tragic heights and pathetic depths we expect of it.

The Dover Beach scene goes by almost unnoticed, and the reunion with Cordelia and even the final scene lack the overwhelming emotional power that, for example, Laurence Olivier would bring to them in another TV Lear eight years later.

Some of the secondary actors, notably Anthony Nicholls as Gloucester and Ewan Hooper as Kent, make no impression at all.

But if your image of Lear is close to the character's self-description as merely 'a foolish fond old man' who just happens to be more of a man than anyone else around, Jonathan Miller's simple and clear production and Michael Hordern's life-size and very human King will be very much to your liking.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of King Lear (BBC 1975) - March 2024
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