Adapted from the 1997 production, director Richard Eyre’s King Lear DVD has a postmodern feel with pared down sets and text to keep the play fast moving. In particular, Lear’s castle is simply a series of rooms furnished in either white or red with matching cloth-covered table and chairs. Each room is connected by maze-like corridors and emphasises how the characters are like labortory rats simply responding to external pressures (in this case, the gods), but the minimalist sets also allow the viewer to concentrate on the performances rather than be distracted by window dressing. Even the map is reduced to a single A4 paper sheet that Lear slams down on a table. Rather than focusing on the ‘darker purpose’ (I.i, line 35) of an arranged ‘marriage for Cordelia’, Sir Ian Holm as Lear hints at the king’s dark nature (Foakes 160).
Lear’s darker side asserts itself when he asks a stiff-necked and aged Goneril (Barbara Flynn who manages to look both officious and burdened by past transgressions as the king’s eldest daughter) how much she loves him. During her response, Lear caresses Regan (a seductive Amanda Redman) and kisses her fully on the lips. The moment recalls Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres (1991), a loose adaptation of King Lear. With her novel, Smiley fills in some of the background detail in the Lear story, especially Goneril’s and Regan’s upbringing from the eldest daughter’s viewpoint. Smiley imagines the death of the absent wife and mother in the play when the three sisters are still children, a tragic event that causes American farmer Larry Cook (the Lear character) to sexually abuse his two eldest daughters Ginny and Rose. However, Smiley does not simply feminise King Lear or turn ‘history’ into ‘herstory’ as the incest theme in King Lear has been detected by many Shakespearean critics. Barbara Melchiori observes the similarity in Lear’s disturbing claim that ”twas this flesh begot/Those pelican daughters’ (III.iv, lines 73-4) to the riddle in Pericles (1609):
I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you. (I.i, lines 65-72)
The riddle’s clear incestuous message shares the same metaphor as that of Lear’s ‘pelican daughters’ in which offspring feed off their parent’s flesh. R. A. Foakes also notes that ‘Lear may be seen as harbouring a suppressed incestuous desire for Cordelia, which surfaces late in the play when he envisages a future in her embrace, “We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage” (V.iii, line 9)’ (Foakes 39). The play’s incestuous undercurrents turns Lear’s demand for his daughters to flatter him with their professed love into a sickening final humilation, which may explain Cordelia’s refusal to participate. In particular, Goneril’s anguish is exacerbated by the Duke of Albany’s reaction when Lear offers his ‘eldest born’ (I.i, line 54) the map’s ‘shadowy forests’ and ‘plenteous rivers’ (I.i, lines 64 & 65). While Goneril struggles to maintain her composure, Albany is looking eagerly over her shoulder to see what riches Lear is offering.
As well as addressing feminist issues, director Richard Eyre hints at political and religious controversy by casting Michael Bryant as the rotund elderly Fool. He instantly recalls one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters: the comic knight, Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff’s portly shape and notoriety as a petty thief and rascal allow ‘[a]n Elizabethan audience [to] recognize in Falstaff the familiar Vice-qualities of gluttony, idleness, and lechery’ (Humphreys xlii). Yet it is Falstaff’s verbal wit and his relationship with a future king that associates him with Lear’s fool. In Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 1 (1598), the roguish Henry, Prince of Wales, enjoys being associated with Falstaff’s infamy as the following passage indicates:
Prince. Why, what a pox have I to do with my hostess of the tavern?
Fal. Well, thou hast called her to a reckoning many a time and oft.
Prince. Did I ever call for thee to pay thy part?
Fal. No, I’ll give thee thy due, thou hast paid all there.
Prince. Yea, and elsewhere, so far as my coin would stretch, and where it would not I have used my credit.
Fal. Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent – (I.ii, lines 46-56)
Falstaff’s here/heir pun establishes how the Prince’s monarchical status has settled both their debts with Mistress Quickly. A father-son relationship develops where the Prince bails out Falstaff in order to enjoy his roguish company, and even trick him for his own amusement.
What is striking is that the relationship between Lear and his fool is a mirror image of the Prince’s and Falstaff’s: the fool becomes the fatherly figure as Lear’s sense of self slowly deteriorates:
Fool Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet one?
Lear No, lad, teach me.
Fool That Lord that counselled thee to give away thy land,
Come place him here by me; do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool will presently appear,
The one in motley here, the other found out there.
Lear Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou
wast born with. (I.iv, lines 134-143)
Like Falstaff’s recognition that the Prince’s monarchical status is influential in his debauched world, the Fool informs Lear that without his title he has become a bitter fool. Without realising it, Lear has lost his identity to become ‘Lear’s shadow’ (I,iv, line 222) and a constant source for the Fool’s witty jests.
Racial tension is also implied by casting Nicholas Bailey as Burgundy (Dr Anthony Trueman in EastEnders) and Adrian Irvine as France. However, the roles of France and Burgundy are not substantial enough to pursue the theme further. Their ethnicity may emphasise Cordelia’s estrangment and how she finds asylum on foreign shores.
Director Richard Eyre also condenses the only subplot in Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Edmund’s “bastardy” soliloquy is reduced to an aside as he “relinquishes” the letter supposedly written by his half-brother Edgar to Gloucester. Purists may baulk at such butchery of Shakespeare’s words, but in terms of visual entertainment and in keeping with the style of Eyre’s minimalist production, the cut is unnoticeable. Furthermore, after watching three filmed versions of King Lear, the emotions generated by Lear’s angry banishment of Cordelia and Kent are difficult to adjust when faced with Edmund’s lengthy speech. The soliloquy seems like the start of another play, while the drama created by Gloucester wanting to read the letter Edmund has “found” flows more convincingly after previous events.
In a feat of superhuman endurance, Sir Ian Holm manages to sustain Lear’s rage until the fifth act. His performance is terrifying and electrifying in equal measure. When Lear, Poor Tom and the Fool gather together inside the hovel the insanity generated between them in terms of incomprehensible speech is overwhelming.
Overall, Eyre’s King Lear is an intense and controversial production in which Gloucester’s blinding is the most savage yet. Unmissable.
Foakes, R. A. ‘Introduction’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 1-151.
Humphreys, A. R. ‘Introduction’. King Henry IV Part 1. 1598. Ed. A. R. Humphreys. Italy: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1960, xi-lxxxii.
Melchiori, Barbara. ‘Still Harping on My Daughter’. English Miscellany, 11 (1960), 59-74.
Shakespeare, William. King Henry IV Part 1. 1598. Ed. A. R. Humphreys. Italy: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1960.
—. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.