King Lear video capsule review: 1953, directed by Peter Brook [Orson Welles]

Continuing our video capsule reviews for King Lear

In 1953, as part of the television series Omnibus, Peter Brook staged a very heavily edited version of King Lear with Orson Welles in the title role. How heavily edited, you might ask. How about 80 minutes long? 73 if you remove the introduction by Alistair Cooke. That’s way under half the length of most versions (like the Blessed version).


How does he accomplish this? By completely eliminating the Edgar/Edmund subplot. Impossible, some will say. Sacrilege, others will cry.

I don’t know. Purists may cringe, but I think this version is pretty damned good.

The two biggest things this has going for it are its director and its star. Brook’s resume is quite extensive and he’s directed some of the greatest of the twentieth century’s Shakespearean actors. And here he was working with a star who was both mightily skilled at Shakespeare, and unafraid to edit (some say hack away at) a text.

Welles’ Lear is a marvel, moving from imperious to hurt to rash to fatigued, all the while madness creeps in. His desperation and self-pity let the madness take over, and all this is visually supported by the seemingly decaying makeup as the production progresses. It’s simply a great performance.

decay of Lear's appearance
decay of Lear’s appearance

So, how does the removal of that “Gloucester & Sons” subplot work? Surprisingly well. The first inklings of change come with Goneril’s interaction with Oswald. She kisses him in their first scene together, and we grow to realize that he will be taking over the villainous role Edmund plays in the text. Edgar is easily replaced by a truly mad Poor Tom, and is really unneeded as Lear and Gloucester happen upon one another. Regan later delivers her speeches for Edmund to Oswald and it works brilliantly.

At the end, though, when in the text the plot and subplot dovetail, some of the machinations of Brook’s streamlined plot become clunky: Albany seemingly finds Goneril’s letter to Edmund on his own, Regan attacks and kills Goneril by choking her for a mere second before Oswald stabs Regan and then himself. It’s unclear why, and Oswald’s sudden redemption (revealing the plot to kill Lear and Cordelia) is unearned and ultimately unnecessary.

But for the most part, this is a standout production. And if you don’t mind losing the bastard subplot, you could do a lot worse than this Peter Brook staging.

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

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