Magazine arts show. With five major productions taking place across 2016, this film looks at why Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear resonates so deeply with contemporary audiences.
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The king is coming!
One play has towered over 2016 like no other,
with productions across the UK starring some of Britain's
most celebrated stage actors.
As a part, it's known as the Everest of acting.
And I think directors maybe regard it as the Everest of...
Well, I think I was terrified.
It's like getting onto a horse which wants to throw you,
at the beginning.
It wants to buck and rear and throw you out of the saddle.
Written over 400 years ago,
Shakespeare's King Lear is striking a powerful chord with today's
actors, directors, and audiences.
The play itself seems to be so precisely about now.
I turn to the newspapers to find out what's happening that day.
I turn to Shakespeare to explain it.
And thanks to Shakespeare's genius, we all ultimately find our
own interpretation of Lear and his story.
Lear gives you a kind of...
a look into a very dark mirror.
At the end, the line said by Edgar is -
"Speak what you feel and not what you OUGHT to say."
That runs through the play and it has also been my mantra
It is a wonderful play.
But I want to stand up and shout, "How dare you!
"How dare you presume to think that this woman wants to live with
"you in that damn cage? How dare you?"
King Lear is a play that seems to belong as much to
the 21st century as it does the 17th.
There's a clash of the generations...
I gave you all!
And in good time you gave it!
Made you my guardians.
..scenes of violence and brutality...
Out, vile jelly!
..and the heartbreaking effects of old age.
Look, a mouse!
This piece of toasted cheese will do it.
But this play that speaks so clearly to our modern age is set in
a world of myth and legend.
King Lear is the story of an elderly monarch who plans to divide
his kingdom between three daughters.
But they must first pass a simple test.
Tell me, my daughters,
which of you shall we say doth love us most?
When the king's youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to pay lip
service to filial love, she is banished.
Hence! And avoid my sight.
But his two elder daughters turn against their father.
I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad!
I will not trouble thee, my child.
We'll no more meet.
No more see one another.
O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes,
I'd use them so that heaven's vault should crack.
At the end of the play, the king and his daughters are dead,
victims of his terrible misjudgement.
Directors have to feel the electric current of the age pass
through them, and that draws them to a particular play,
because they feel that play speaks to the moment,
speaks to something that we...
..sense but can't articulate.
King Lear's decision to divide his kingdom taps into a
preoccupation with national identity that echoes down the centuries.
We began rehearsals back in June, just after Brexit.
And, of course, the sense that the play was capturing
the effects of dividing a union
were evident there in the text of the play and every line sort
of would zing out.
We're dealing in politics on a national and international level,
because he is the king.
It is his country.
They are his daughters. They are princesses.
And he gives them the country in portions.
Now, that is dividing a nation.
Of all these bounds,
even from this line
With shadowy forests,
and with champains rich'd,
with plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,
we make thee lady.
When I directed it in the early '90s,
the production was abstract to a fault,
but if I did it again,
I'd want to know a lot more about the real world that Lear lives in.
I do think it's probably the responsibility now of
a staged production to make proper decisions about the country
that Lear has plainly brought to something close to ruin.
We chose some of the imagery looking at Elizabeth I's arrival into
London. There are processional
paintings of Elizabeth in a sort of palanquin.
It's almost pope-like in its arrival,
to just enhance that sense of his very, very high status.
Of course, it gives him much further to fall from.
You know, I mean literally in our production
he's carried on high.
For a modern audience, the global events of the past century
provide a haunting backdrop to Lear's dark vision of the world.
I think in the 20th century and now in the 21st,
we no longer expected things to all work out.
You know, after two world wars, the dropping of an atomic bomb,
there was no sanity in the world and I think that the play...
that therefore the play somehow
resonated in a completely different way.
No production exists independently of the time that it's presented in.
I suspect that,
certainly in the British theatre,
the big and most influential change in the way we look at the play was
Peter Brook's in the early '60s.
Director Peter Brook reclaimed Lear for the modern stage in 1962.
His version, starring Paul Schofield,
was austere and ruthlessly pessimistic.
Brook directed an equally bleak film of the production in 1971,
shot in the Arctic Circle.
No, no life.
Why should a dog or horse or rat have life
and thou no breath at all?
Oh, thou'ld come no more.
It's a really bleak vision of the world,
a really bleak vision of the family,
and a really bleak vision of the kind of nihilistic,
senseless, destructive way men and women have with each other.
Diana Rigg played Cordelia in Brook's original stage play.
The setting was very spare, and as a result,
the performances stood out, and Paul's certainly.
He was the standard bearer for a very, very long time,
Brook showed that Lear could have been especially written for
the horrors of the modern age.
Gloucester having his eyes put out, I remember the audience...
Quite often, there'd be a casualty among the...
Somebody would faint when that happened.
Out, vile jelly.
Brook's avowed intention with it was to remove any kind of
It was almost as if the audience was not allowed to feel anything
at all about the characters.
He used to joke, Brook,
that you don't buy a ticket for the theatre on the back that says,
"This ticket entitles you to have a good emotional time and
"a good cry," because he wasn't interested in that.
We that are young
shall never see so much
nor live so long.
Brook's vision was harsh and unsentimental.
But today's productions foreground the play's raw emotion and
fractured family relationships.
O, my dear father,
restoration hang thy medicine on my lips and let this kiss repair those
violent harms that my two sisters have in thy reverence made.
I think the recovery scene, where she brings him back to life,
I think he hears her voice and...
..gives him the will to live.
Oh, it's so beautiful.
I think this lady to be my child, Cordelia.
And so I am!
Be your tears wet?
Pray, weep not.
It is about love and, you know, I loved my father a very great
deal, and I think that's a common theme too - daughters and fathers.
And it's so, so touching.
I mean, I defy anybody not to have a little weep at that scene.
When you boil it right down,
it's a father.
It's his daughter.
It's his friend.
the things that are at play here.
His daughters break his heart.
..knows that children at some stage will do that.
What the play I think is putting its finger on is the inescapably tragic
and self-destructive nature of the bond between parent and child.
There is no answer that will be good enough for Lear.
He thinks of his daughters, he thinks of his children, as
being almost as much under his control as his own flesh.
He does not accept that they have wills or identities of their own.
Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou does ask me blessing,
I'll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness.
And so we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales.
I want to stand up and shout, "How dare you!
"How dare you presume to think that this woman wants to live with
"you in that damn cage? How dare you?"
What was very interesting in rehearsal was just how the
sibling relationships and the relationships of those
sisters to their father echoed throughout.
Almost every actor in the company at some point in rehearsals would sort
of say, "That is just like what my dad does,"
or, "That's exactly how I feel about my sister,"
and the sense of how there can be nothing deeper than
a hatred that's rooted in a family argument and festers over
years and years and years.
His stuff with Goneril is so visceral
when he curses her womb.
I mean, it shocks us even now.
We still go...
"God, you know, to think that Shakespeare was writing that..."
Into her womb...
Dry up in her
the organs of increase.
And from her derogate body
never spring a babe to honour her.
As a war rages between baby boomers and millennials,
Lear's disastrous efforts to divide up his assets seem
I think there is an element in the play which we very readily
understand today that...
..the older generation has got a lot of things wrong and we're not
sufficiently looking after the people who have to follow us.
We deliberately emphasised the lack of understanding between the
generations, with the junior parts being played by graduates of
the Bristol Old Vic theatre school.
We old buffers, you know, standing on one side, and the other,
and there wasn't an awful lot of sympathy between us.
When his daughters strip him of the trappings of kingship,
Lear begins to question what really matters to us as human beings.
His speech, Reason Not The Need,
is the emotional turning point of the play.
O, reason not the need!
Our basest beggars
are in the poorest things superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs.
Man's life is cheap as beast's.
Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous.
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
which scarcely keeps thee warm.
But for true need...
give me that patience.
Patience I need.
Reason Not The Need is about more than being a king.
It's about being a human being.
As opposed to being...
..a dog, a horse, whatever.
That we have something else.
..it's important to remember that.
And to reduce him to just need is
to minimise what being
a human being is.
Recent productions of Lear are also looking to the ills of
contemporary society for their inspiration.
The truth of the matter is that the play will always, like a magnet,
pick up the iron filings in the atmosphere, whatever they are.
For me, the reason why we're seeing Lears sprout like mushrooms today
is that in the last ten years you're seeing a broader recognition
that some form of the social contract has broken down,
that there are the permanently disenfranchised.
Well, I suppose he becomes a socialist.
If you want to put it in a box.
You know, he becomes an egalitarian
suddenly, and that's always going to be a very strong thing for
a contemporary audience.
Poor naked wretches,
whereso'er you are,
that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm...
How shall your houseless heads
and unfed sides,
your looped and windowed raggedness,
defend you from seasons such as these?
I have ta'en too little care of this.
Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
that thou mayst shake the superflux to them
and show the heavens more just.
Both Elizabeth and King James' reign had this profound sense that
there were both floods of immigrants and sturdy beggars striding through
the country, so there was a sort of national paranoia about this
tide of vagrancy.
And I think it was fascinating to see that Shakespeare ties
into that, and that seemed so current.
It'll make you think this year of the Calais jungle.
It'll make you think of the people sleeping in the underground
stations or indeed in the street. Of course it does.
It's one of those wonderful Shakespeare moments when you
think he actually has been listening to the news that morning
on the radio and sat down and written an extra speech about
what it's like to be poor and have no home.
You see me here, you Gods.
A poor old man, as full of grief as age, wretched in both.
You think I'll weep.
No, I'll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping.
But this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws or ere
O, fool, I shall go mad.
I shall go mad.
Lear gives you a kind of...
a look into a very dark mirror.
And I think most people want to have a glimpse.
So that maybe they can prepare themselves.
When we are born, we cry
that we've come to this great stage of fools.
This is a good block.
It were a delicate stratagem
to shoo a troop of horse with felt.
When I've stol'n upon these son in laws, then kill, kill, kill!
Kill, kill, kill!
With our increasingly ageing population,
the play's tragic study of old age has fascinated contemporary
directors from Brook onwards.
O, let me not be mad.
Not mad, sweet heaven.
Keep me in temper.
I would not be mad.
My goodness, don't we all feel that? Me, of my age.
Let me not be mad. I mean, dementia nowadays.
What we would now call dementia or Alzheimer's,
there's not a person in a theatre on any given night that doesn't
have an opinion about that, one way or another.
It's either something they feel, they've seen.
You know, it's very, very familiar.
This process whereby Lear seems to talk close to gibberish,
rather beautiful gibberish, in fact, but then suddenly the mists
clear for a minute and he becomes completely sane and
completely as he was before,
and then goes off the rails again,
it's something that everybody has seen in this dreadful condition.
Through tattered clothes,
small vices do appear.
Robes and furred gowns hide all.
Plate sins with gold, and the
strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw doth pierce it.
None does offend.
None, I say,
Get thee glass eyes,
and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not.
The 20th century's most legendary Shakespearean actor,
Sir Laurence Olivier,
played Lear in 1983.
But in this, his last Shakespearean role,
he appeared not on stage but in an award-winning film made by Granada.
Sir, as he was known, was 75.
What's he that has so much thy place forgot to set thee here?
Sir wanted to be able to say all the speeches the way
he would have said them on stage.
In one, without everything being chopped up,
as they do in film.
But it's the great, great sadness, and one wept for him, was that
he could never get through a speech
without drying and it was...
..I haven't been able to watch it.
I've never been able to see it.
Because I remember being so...
..saddened by this ambition being thwarted.
I pray you, Father, being weak, seem so, if till the expiration of your
month, you will return and sojourn with my sister,
dismissing half your train,
come then to me.
Return with her and 15 men dismissed, never!
Rather I abjure all roofs than choose to wage against the enmity
of the air, to be accompanied with the wolf and owl. Return with her!
It's your choice, Sir!
You'd be in a scene with him and suddenly the eyes would
And you'd know he was going over and over.
He really, really, really screwed himself
up to do this.
But he couldn't succeed. You know, age...
..sort of Lear and age.
One man who experienced the relationship between Lear and
old age in a very real sense was the actor Edward Petherbridge.
When I was asked out of the blue from New Zealand to do Lear,
a thing that I never thought would happen to me,
I naturally thought the old thing of Everest,
cos it's there, of course.
However foolish it may be.
This breathing, raging, foolish, fond old man
leaving some pen marks on a page,
invites the mortal actor if he can
to breathe in time with him upon a stage,
commit his thoughts to memory and stand within the theatre,
held in Shakespeare's mind
a platform and a world, its hinterland.
we murmured on this garden seat.
I made his wreath of flowers.
Soon we're seeing,
"Look, look! A mouse."
But Edward was never to go on stage as Lear.
I touched down and started rehearsal the next day.
Doctor didn't tell me to take aspirins and statins or
anything like that.
So I collapsed in the middle of the night.
Luckily, it wasn't the kind of stroke that puts you out.
I was able to crawl. I knew it was a stroke because I couldn't...
I had to crawl and drag myself. You know, this side wasn't working.
And I... So I was completely compos and I thought,
"That's Lear gone." I knew.
I didn't have any regret.
I had a new job to do, which was instead of climbing Lear,
I was on the nursery slopes of trying to touch my finger and thumb.
Be able to see, to read, be able to walk.
Six years later, he put his experiences into a new play,
My Perfect Mind,
about the experience of NOT playing Lear.
..divided our kingdom and tis our fast intent to lay all cares
and business from our age confirming them on younger strengths,
while we, unburdened,
crawl towards death.
Our son of Cornwall...
Is this going to be here?
Who ever played King Lear with a cane-back chair?!
Somebody in Belarus at this very moment.
rang up on my iPhone now and offered me the part, I would go.
I would pick up the script, learn the bits I've forgotten,
and be on the next plane.
In time, we shall express our darker purpose.
Draw me a clothier's yard.
And we take upon us the mystery of things as if we were Gods.
The text is only a part of the story.
These plays, whether they're about fathers and daughters,
or whether they're about the destruction of power structures,
inescapably refer to whichever world it is that performs them.
Every performer and director will have their own distinct
understanding of Lear and his tragedy.
I don't think he completely learns.
I think he learns what is important to him.
And what is important to us
which is to cling on to the things that respond to you,
the love that people give you.
I don't think he is really aware of all the awful damage he has done.
I was amazed at the exhilaration the audiences felt,
both times I was in it.
They leave the theatre exhilarated,
as if they were saying, "We've now learned the worst that human
"beings can do to each other, and we feel very good."
Because they've taken Shakespeare's medicine.
Every actor who's played it in this astonishing Jubilee year is
bringing something completely different to it, whether that's
Don Warrington, Tim West, Glenda Jackson, Michael Pennington,
are all bringing something different in their experience and their
life journey to bear upon that play,
and that's why we keep on going back to Shakespeare, we keep on
going back to see different productions of Shakespeare.
You don't kind of go, "Oh, I've seen King Lear. That's it."
Shakespeare has this capacity for almost infinite interpretation.
This year's hottest play was written over 400 years ago - Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear. With five major productions taking place across 2016, this film looks at why Lear resonates so deeply with contemporary audiences. The programme includes contributions from Diana Rigg, Timothy West, Antony Sher and Nicholas Hytner on why Lear is widely viewed as Shakespeare's towering achievement.