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TV Report: King Lear

So. Your Humble Blogger has finally managed to watch the King Lear I was hocking about a couple of weeks ago. And it was… ok.

Sir Ian McKellen was very very good in places, although somewhat less impressive in others (in my arrogant opinion, of course). The rest of the cast was much less impressive. I did like Sylvester McCoy’s Fool, most of the time, although the effect of actually hanging him on-stage (as it were) is dramatically lessened by the transfer to television. Not his fault, really. Monica Dolan’s Regan did an excellent job of differentiating her character from Frances Barber’s more cookie-cutter Goneril, although the idea of playing it as Tracey Ullman-plays-Helena-Bonham-Carter-as-an-alcoholic-Sloane-Ranger was a trifle irritating. Still, I have seen enough performances where the sisters are indistinguishable from each other or from other performers in other productions; this was memorable and effective. Romola Garai’s Cordelia was luminously beautiful, really startlingly gorgeous, but (a) so what, and (2) that doesn’t really justify shoving her breasts into the camera all through I,i. Again, probably not her fault, really. I didn’t like Kent at all, I didn’t like Gloucester at the beginning, and although I liked him more once he was blinded, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t like Edgar or Edmund.

I hated the costumes. First of all, the similarity made it hard to tell one male from another; they were all black, white and grey, except King Lear at the beginning, but of course we didn’t have any trouble telling which one was King Lear. And the costumes were just bad; the worst was the Duke of Albany wearing a fucking bathrobe into combat. No, I’m serious. Lots of gold braid and medals and comfy, comfy terry cloth. And when the Fool gets stripped of his outer stuff, he seriously appears to be wearing contemporary slacks and a shirt; it was incongruous and distracting. And the sets, too, I didn’t like them, either. Again all grey and black, with nothing to really distinguish the atmosphere of the various castles. There was no way to tell at a glance that we were back in Albany, or in Gloucester, or where. Nor were they the same place, so it wasn’t some sort of thematic or metaphorical point. They were just similar, and confusing.

But I don’t really want to emphasize the things I dislike. It’s just easier to describe them and talk about them; I often will see a show I like and spend several hours talking about the aspects that failed to work. The character, Sir Ian’s Lear, is wonderful and tremendously effective. Less so on the heath (where also the sound mixing problems were particularly bad; it was difficult to make out what anybody was saying with all that rain); more so (as I expected) after the storm. His Lear was not as serene in those final scenes as some interpretations have him; he maintains a certain asperity, a certain impatience, a certain imperiousness. Do not abuse me he says to Kent, at the end, and it snapped out like, well, like a king. And I was weeping, just a trifle, at the recognition scene; I always weep at that.

The thing about Sir Ian is his incredible physical inventiveness. He delivers the verse extraordinarily well, of course, but there are others who might do it even better; nobody does the physical stuff better than him. It’s not just that he is good at the naturalistic part of physical acting, or that his body is capable of expressive gestures, not just with his face or his hands but his legs, his shoulders, his torso. It’s that he clearly is fiendishly good at coming up with bits of business, of physical acting, and then investing them with meaning and performing them with strength and care, which ultimately (for me) add up to a kind of mesmerizing reality for the character that I have never seen anyone equal. It was astonishing on-stage, of course; seeing his Richard III remains the best theatrical experience I’ve had. But in films, as well. Good ones as well as bad.

In this Lear, there’s an ongoing bit with a handkerchief that is wonderful. He seems at several points to be on the verge of a seizure; I was worried that he was going to go all the way, have a stroke on the heath in the storm, and then perform the rest of the play with the left side of his face limp and drooping. That would have been heavy-handed. What actually happened was not: his increasing stiffness, an increasingly drippy nose, and (I think) some increasingly broad gestures with his arms. “I am not ague-proof” he says, sniffling into that handkerchief, which will soon become a rather disgusting white flag. But in between, he cradles poor blind Gloucester like a baby, and then puts felt on his back hooves and steals up on his sons-in-law, stamping and rearing.

There is always a temptation for an actor to give a character some little fun physical attribute: a limp, a twitch, a habitual gesture, a stiff knee. It’s fun to put on, and it can seem so meaningful. And, you know, it can be. But what Sir Ian does (imao) goes way beyond that. I’m not altogether sure how to describe it. I can identify good physical actors, sometimes (in movies both Nicolas Case and Keanu Reeves are inventive physical actors, when they aren’t phoning it in, as is Johnny Depp, of course) but I don’t know that I could tell you what exactly makes for good physical acting.

I suppose, for me, it’s invention; it’s figuring out what to add to the words without detracting from the words. I’m not terribly good at it, myself, although I wish I were. I try to remember about it, give my character a walk, a way of standing, a way of sitting. But the thing is that I have to walk, and stand and sit (so far; I haven’t had to play a part whilst in a neck-high urn yet). I was able to talk my director for Liaisons into having Valmont and his valet cross swords during a bit of a conversation, just for a thing to do, and I think that worked. And there are sometimes little things; in April, my character trailed his fingers in a fish pond that was actually several mirrors. That’s an easy bit of visual trickery, as by folding the fingers under, it looks a bit like they are sinking under the surface, and then I pick them back up and shake them out a bit.

I try to think of things like that, but my imagination is usually limited to minor stuff, bits with my hands, a funny walk, fiddling with props. The bit where Sir Ian takes the bit of cheese from his pocket and lays it gently on the ground, and then stamps on it with his bare heel—well, that’s not even one I particularly liked, and I’m saying that I couldn’t have come up with it, or with anything like it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,