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King Lear

(Denmark, 1971, 135 minutes, color, 16mm)

Directed by Peter Brook

Paul Scofield . . . . . . . . . . King Lear
Alan Webb . . . . . . . . . . Duke of Gloucester
Irene Worth . . . . . . . . . .Goneril
Susan Engel . . . . . . . . . . Regan
Anne-Lise Gabold . . . . . . . . . . Cordelia
Jack MacGowran . . . . . . . . . . Fool

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

In the mid 1960s, theatrical director Peter Brook talked condescendingly of several attempts to film Shakespeare: the adaptations of Welles and Olivier, he said, were based on nineteenth century interpretations, and no one had really figured out how to capture the swiftly shifting associations and evanescent imagery that made Shakespeare so dynamic on stage. "The problem of filming Shakespeare," said Brook, "is how can you change gears, styles and conventions as lightly and as deftly as the mental process inside a person, which can be reflected by blank verse but not by the consistency of a single image?" The movies were too literal, felt Brook; to him, Shakespeare was the most abstract of playwrights. That’s what made his plays so suited for the small, bare stages of Elizabethan England, and also what made them so easily transferable to non-European and even non-Western cultures.

Brook considered King Lear not only Shakespeare’s greatest work, but a play very much in the vein of the Absurdist drama of Ionesco and Beckett, a work in which the blindness of mankind was thrillingly dramatized. His theatrical production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, with Paul Scofield, had brilliantly visualized this universal, tragic reality. As his assistant, Charles Marowitz, wrote of that production, "The world of this Lear, like Beckett’s, is in a constant state of decomposition." Sets made of rusting metal, tattered, worn-out looking costumes (even for court personalities), beat-up furniture all gave the production a haggard, haunted look. The decay of vision, of tradition, and finally the end of all certainty was made frighteningly material in this understanding of Lear, and Brook expanded on it for his film. As he had in the stage production, he used a painstaking preparation period to learn for himself and his performers the essence of the play. He began by bringing in poet Ted Hughes, and asking him to "translate" King Lear as if it had been written in a foreign language, to render it, not into a 1969 idiom, but into a language that suited the contemporary needs of poetic expression. Having done this, Brook returned to the original Shakespeare, convinced that this defamiliarization had helped him to tap the core of the play. He edited and cut the original text ruthlessly, even transposing some lines from one character to another.

Brook had often despaired of bringing Shakespeare to the screen because of his strong feelings about the misuse of film decor in Shakespeare adaptations. He wanted to avoid what Marowitz called "the operatic hangover" of movie sets, overbuilt and ‘dramatic’ in themselves, that seemed to plague Shakespearean films. Brook wanted to avoid ‘authenticity’ in their set designs. Lear, after all, is not a history play. Brook took the company to windswept North Jutland, in Denmark, during the winter of 1968-1969. Here, he found what he was looking for: a landscape as abstract and nonspecific as his designs for the theatrical production of Lear had been. A vague, walled structure for Goneril’s castle, a barren, flat stretch of sand for the play’s climax—KING LEAR’s setting could be anywhere.

As his stage production seven years earlier had been, Brook’s KING LEAR is anchored by the fear and bombast of Paul Scofield as Lear. By now, given Brook’s ethic of constant mental preparation (rather than mere rehearsals), Scofield was ready to bring one of the century’s great Lears to fruition, to climb Shakespeare’s craggiest, most daunting mountain. Like the sets, Scofield’s Lear is a character stripped to its muscles and sinews, lacking ornament of any kind. The film begins with Lear in his sepulchral throne room, wielding great power with equally great assurance. His world is clearly in austere yet meaningful order. Instantly, with his attempt to divide his kingdom equitably, that order starts to disintegrate. By the end of the play, with Lear descending deeper into emotional and physical disability, Brook’s scene design choices, and his understanding of his protagonist, come together in a collision of dread and insight. The very landscape rears up against Lear, spitting rain and lightning at him. The world he had once commanded now makes a fool of him, forcing him to question his very perceptions. Surreal, horrifying, deadly, Lear’s world dissolves into a fractured series of glimpses of the inferno, splinters of a world gone mad.

Brook did more than overcome the cinema’s desire to encase Shakespeare in the reassuring mantle of the distant past. In freeing King Lear from history, he made a film that touched the minor chords of its age. Brook’s Lear is the late 1960s everyman, toppled from sanity and sureness by the whirlwind of change. His children reject him, and his inheritance of respect and wealth which he had been given and which he seeks to give in turn, is shown up as the cheapest counterfeit. His age becomes a symbol of a generation grown suddenly too old, catapulted into a mystifying senility by the end of faith in religion, in the government of the just, in patriarchy. His lifelong pursuit of order is revealed as a chimera, a hopeless delusion of control over a world that is uncontrollable, even rebellious. In response to this revelation, Lear trades his gravity and dignity for rage and frustration. For Peter Brook’s Lear, and perhaps for his audience, there is always an end to authority, even over oneself.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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