What happens when you strip Shakespeare’s King Lear down to its basic plot, shuffling all the subplots and most of the comic bits off to the wayside? You end up with something almost maliciously pessimistic about what humans are capable of, but also something that moves with a malevolent sense of purpose. Lear is maybe the greatest work ever written in the English language, but it’s amazing how much one of the greatest works in the English language resembles a grim, gritty action film at its core.
Mounted in 1953 for CBS’ Sunday-afternoon arts-and-culture program Omnibus, Peter Brook’s version, starring Orson Welles in the title role, cuts to the quick. With its overtly theatrical costumes, relentless pacing, and sense of the natural world infringing on its characters, this Lear production feels almost like Akira Kurosawa did a dry-run for Ran 30 years earlier on TV and didn’t tell anybody.
But this Lear is fully Brook’s. The legendary theatrical director—only 29 at the time—indulges many of his favorite staging tricks, from occasionally overly complicated stage pictures (which often don’t read well on TV) to tossing real wind and rain up onstage. Brook’s Lear comes as close to apocalyptic as the stage can, and his paring down of the story to its essential elements only enforces that sense of doom.
While it’s interesting to ponder what Lear is like when crammed into a 90-minute time slot, all that concision robs the play of some of its power. The only fully developed characters are Lear, Cordelia, and maybe the Fool, and while the sketching makes sense on TV, the humor and the humanity of Shakespeare’s work isn’t entirely well-represented. It just becomes a relentlessly dour thing, and while Brook handles it ably, it’s too easy to check out of the action.
It also doesn’t help that Omnibus just amounted to a series of filmed stage shows. Though each episode was produced on a sound stage, the blocking and sets were all straight out of live theater. The camera mostly stays pinned in wide and medium shots that attempt to take in the whole stage, and when Brook cuts in, it’s usually just for a close-up on a monologue. Brook would learn his cinematic grammar in time—he went on to make the first Lord Of The Flies film, after all—but in Lear, he’s only making the most obvious choices. Since TV had yet to fully discover multi-camera setups, the staid shot selections drain the action of much of its urgency, stranding most of the supporting cast.
But nobody cares about that. Anyone buying this DVD will be buying it to see Welles’ take on Lear. And while the actor, barely a decade past Citizen Kane at that point, was still fairly young to be playing the foremost old-man role on the stage—and he sometimes gets lost behind his mountains of makeup—he hits the play’s biggest moments with aplomb. This is a big, big performance, one that the other actors sometimes don’t know what to do with; while not exactly a revelatory new take on the part, it’s reminder of how the man first came to acclaim as a stage performer, not a film legend.
Key features: There’s a surprising amount of additional content on the disc, including several Omnibus presentations on a Shakespeare festival, the Globe Theatre, and the staging of Shakespeare’s plays.