Cries and Whispers
Peter Brook’s King Lear is a curious artifact from the early 70’s. Ingmar Bergman’s fingerprints are all over the bleak black & white visuals as well as the sometimes nonsensical editing cues (gotta love those random zooms and fades to black). The landscape is a lunar-like tundra — flat, icy —an appropriate setting for a play that puts Beckett to school on all matters existential. Moribund thespians speak their lines as though their vocal chords have been dipped in amber. Brook, a legendary theater director, is no Bergman when it comes to the cinema, however, and his artsy effects are occasionally strained. The text is gutted to the point of almost complete incoherence to all but those most intimate with the play. In short, I would discourage teachers/professors from showing this movie to their classes as a means of introduction. [Editor's note: we recommend the James Earl Jones or Laurence Oliver versions for classrooms.]
That being said, anyone familiar with Lear, for my money the most cosmic and depressing work in the Shakespeare canon, should give this fascinating, frustrating version a chance. Apart from the poetic and oftentimes stunning visuals, what makes the production a must-see is Paul Scofield’s tour-de-force performance as the king more sinned against than sinning. In a bracingly original interpretation, Scofield plays the King as an irascible old fart — meaner than a junkyard dog, as my mom would say. Lear earns no sympathy points for a long stretch. He’s a childish tyrant lording it over his somewhat shaken, understandably intimidated daughters, Goneril and Regan. When Cordelia says she loves him only in accordance with her bond as a daughter, no more and no less, we believe her. He overturns a dinner table in a hissy fit when he doesn’t get his way. He lets his soldiers run rampant. In one of the most chilling passages in English, he curses his daughter and wishes on her sterility, ending in that famous line, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
He’s a cold, unfeeling bastard. Scofield walks a tight rope, but his unsympathetic take on the part pays off in a big way: Lear’s transformation from a tyrant spoiled by long years surrounded by brown-nosers (a man who only but “slenderly knows himself” as Goneril astutely observes) into the suffering yet somehow contented man of sorrows by the play’s end is striking. This Lear is the most radically transformed of all the interpretations I’ve seen. It takes a mighty fine actor to pull it off.
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