King Lear video capsule review: 1982, directed by Jonathan Miller [Michael Hordern]

Continuing our video capsule reviews for King Lear

Next is the 1982 BBC production that was part of the fifth season of their Complete Works series, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern.

This is a solid production, and it feels like a well-tuned machine. And in a sense it was. Miller had directed Hordern as Lear in a live production back in 1969 and then used the same Lear and Fool (Frank Middlemass) in a television production in 1975. Miller had been scheduled to direct an episode in the BBC series, and he chose to go to his old standby. By going with the same Lear and Fool and basic directorial concept as before, he was able to spend more time on other aspects of the production, like the other actors, and the look of the piece, and this is where I think the production goes beyond what we usually see in productions of the play (or at least in the ones–Blessed and Brook–we’ve seen thus far).

Hordern makes for a solid Lear, one who is hurt by Cordelia, but changed by Kent, and crushed by Goneril and Regan. He regains his strength, both emotional and physical, by his reunion with Cordelia (only to be… well, you know … that reunion doesn’t last). And Miller surrounds him with a superb supporting cast: John Shrapnel makes for a great Kent; Gillian Barge and Penelope Wilton (yes, she of Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, and our last play’s BBC Othello) become a wonderful tagteam of evil sisters. And Michael Kitchen just kills as that suavely evil bastard Edmund.

The look of the production, too, is outstanding. In most scenes, there are barely any edits from camera to camera. Instead, the camera moves slowly and subtly, and the players move around it. This makes for some very long takes, but ones that seem to put the viewer in the play.

This is a nicely paced 3-hour production that includes portions of the Quartio inserted into new places in the Folio, but still cutting many of the interactions between Edmund and Gloucester, making Gloucester’s turning against Edgar seem even more rash than Lear’s against Cordelia.

Not all of Miller’s choices pay off, though. There are some weird visual aspects to Edgar, giving him not just a crown of weeds (like Lear) but a crown of thorns. And if that wasn’t heavy-handed enough, later when we see Edgar playing with an insect, we see that he actually has stigmata in his palms. OK, I get the Christ-like suffering, but given the fact that he’s the only character who kills two other characters, I’m not totally bought-and-sold on the Christ connection.

Overall, however, this is a very good production, well worth the viewing.

And don’t forget to have an ear out for our upcoming podcast with full reviews of all of the major versions I’ve found!

3 thoughts on “King Lear video capsule review: 1982, directed by Jonathan Miller [Michael Hordern]”

  1. In this book Subseqent Performances, Miller explains the Christ stuff. You may not buy it, and I don’t feel like trying to synopsize what he wrote, but it’s worth searching out the book (which is generally fascinating).

    1. Hi, Alan.

      Finally got a hold of Subsequent Performances, and finally got a chance to read the darn thing.

      You’re right: it (the book) and it (his concept) are both fascinating reading. The concept of Edgar creating a Poor Tom who thought he was Christ is, well, awesome; I just wish it was clearer that Miller wasn’t just layering Christ imagery on Edgar. And you’re right as well: I’m not sure I buy it. Or at least, I’m of the mind that if you have to explain not just why you made a choice directorially speaking, but what it is supposed to mean as well, it’s not well-presented. Plus, his argument is blunted somewhat by his own admission that he sees Edgar/Edmund as being reminiscent of Christ/Lucifer. But maybe that’s just me being grumpy at the end of the day.

      Thanks again for the recommendation, though… It really is a fascinating read!

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