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TV Review: King Lear

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The BBC’s latest adaptation of King Lear sports a phenomenal cast that brings this story into the 21st century with a searing intensity.

Anthony Hopkins delivers a blistering performance as the ageing king, truly terrifying in his rage, and pathetic in his arrogance.

Emma Thompson’s Goneril and Emily Watson’s Regan are a combined tour de force, balancing simpering flattery and bloody-minded revenge with ease. In comparison to her sisters, Cordelia (Florence Pugh) has a far less meaty role, resulting in Pugh falling pretty flat amongst an all-star cast of scene-stealers.

The storyline running parallel to that of Lear and his daughters is of course that of Gloucester and his sons — the power-hungry bastard Edmund, and the naive, legitimate Edgar. Rising star John Macmillan more than holds his own as Edgar, delivering the famous “Now gods, stand up for bastards” monologue directly into the camera with biting force. It’s a feat in itself that he isn’t overshadowed by Andrew Scott’s manic Edmund — rather, they play off one another, elevating each other’s performances.

Jim Broadbent is fantastic as a blustering Gloucester, but his blinding scene perhaps goes a little too far. Regan and her husband Cornwall (Tobias Menzies)’s vicious anger certainly inspires the horror it’s supposed to, as the audience is treated to a very graphic digging out of Gloucester’s eyes. There’s a fine line to be walked between violence that is impactful and violence that is gratuitous — and there’s an argument to be made both ways in this case. It probably depends on how squeamish you are, but suffice to say it’s an image that’ll stay with you. 

Scott’s casting as Edgar is utterly perfect — I couldn’t think of an actor more suited to embody the transition from Edgar to Poor Tom. Madness is something we’re used to seeing him portray adeptly, but it’s the contrast with his tragic lucidity as he reconnects with his blind father that is truly masterful.

A tight two hours, the play is pared down to great effect, and like many Shakespearean adaptations, it retains the original language while updating the setting. Lear’s kingdom is a modern Britain, and the sets consist of modern military bases and luxurious country mansions befitting of the likes of Harry and Meghan. Khaki army uniforms and green berets contrast with the sleek and stylish (yet practical) attire of the princesses. As Lear loses his wits, he loses his armour-like layers of clothing, while Edgar and Kent (Jim Carter) use unbefitting clothing to disguise themselves. The costuming is a triumph, as is the visual styling of the whole piece — bleak lighting growing colder and more desaturated as the tragedy develops.

Christopher Eccleston’s snarky Oswald and Karl Johnson’s Fool round off the brilliantly capable cast with stylistic flair, adding much needed humour to probably the most depressing of Shakespeare’s works. 

The pacing does falter towards the end, losing some of the charging momentum as the most engaging players are removed one by one, but overall it’s a deeply engaging and brilliantly acted adaptation.

King Lear is available on BBC iPlayer here.

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