"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Peter Brook’s King Lear

Peter Brook’s King Lear is a stunning, memorable cinematic vision – so different from any other Shakespeare film interpretations that I have seen.  Just for comparison, and interest, I watched a more traditional version with Ian McKellen in a staged and histrionic – but complete rendition of the play.  To really understand Shakespeare, and to miss nothing in the complex text, I like to read along with the play; and I only watch the abbreviated, abridged versions after I have seen more complete versions.  For example, Olivier’s Hamlet is much better Richard Burton’s; but it has been reworked and abridged; so I watched Burton’s first, then Olivier’s.  Coincidentally, the versions of both plays have a lot in common.  Burton is very theatrical (booming, sonorous voice, perfect diction), but at the end I was left with little else; while Olivier focusses on a few issues – such as the love/hate between Hamlet and his mother, and I felt I understood more than ever the Freudian interpretation of the play.

The same is true of McKellen and Paul Scofield who played Lear in the Brook play.  McKellen plays it “traditionally” – lots of histrionic madness; while Scofield under Brook’s spare direction, plays the madness more internally, and believably.  Remember, there is a willing suspension of disbelief at the beginning of the play when Lear gives away all his kingdom, to divide it equally among his three daughters; shuns the one who loves him most; and gives the two halves to the scheming, evil Goneril and Regan.

As you will see in the review I have quoted below, the Brook film is set in Denmark, on the wild sandy and snowy wastes of Jutland.  It is all on site, and in most scenes, you can see the actors’ breath, even inside.  The long shots of the kings caravans driving across the wasteland are stunning; and the heath is transformed from what one imagines as the English heath of  Thomas Hardy to a cold, desolate Northern wasteland.  The histrionic McKellen is constantly drenched with pouring rain, where for Brook the blowing wind and snow of the Jutland steppes is enough.

Brook’s direction reminds me of Werner Herzog, for nature in Herzog’s movies is a character, not a background.  Other versions of Lear have shown the heath as a physical image of Lear’s madness, but something familiar; but Brook’s is a heath of cold desolation.  Herzog also chooses his landscapes for their inherent power.  The image of Lear’s caravan coming across the snow wastes reminds me of the pack-line of Peruvian Indians slowly descending the Andes in the opening shot of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

It is not fair to compare an on location version of a film, and a staged one.  Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V on location; but to do so the director had to cut a lot of text to accommodate the field shots.  Roman Polanski’s Macbeth also relied on many external shots, and among other faults, left the text unattended.  Ian McKellen’s Richard III had external scenes, but is even more compelling than Olivier’s masterpiece which was staged.

Also, I have had to get over the abridging of Shakespeare’s plays.  As I said, I like to read the play while watching the movie, and get lost when the movie is abridged.  However, Hamlet and Richard III are so long that they are almost always abridged.

Which leads me to King Lear  - I very much prefer the Peter Brook version, although it focuses far more on the Lear-Goneril-Regan portion of the diptych than the McKellen version which presents both it and its parallel Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund (in fact both parts are inter-linked which makes the final denouement of Brook’s version less faithful to Shakespeare).  It is better to have a powerful cinematic version of a portion of the play, than a more traditional and theatrical version. 

Following is a Vincent Canby (NYT) review in 1971:

“Having missed the King Lear that was staged here seven years ago by Peter Brook with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I'm unable to compare it with Mr. Brook's film version, which also stars Paul Scofield and Irene Worth and opened yesterday at the Paris Theater.

Thus happily unburdened of the need to make comparisons, I can simply state that this is a King Lear of splendor and shock. Mr. Brook's screen adaptation, filmed in a kind of primeval black-and-white, mostly in the wintery dune country of Denmark's Jutland Peninsula, is set in a time and place where the sun seems to be receding not because of any seasonal course but because the entire universe is moving toward an exhausted end.

... King Lear is, I think, Brook at his manic best. It triumphantly ignores both romantic and naturalistic traditions to achieve something akin to the so-called new theater in film terms.

… It has the relentless single-minded purpose of a prophet of doom. It also, from time to time, goes quite mad itself with cinematic effects, but it is so magnificently acted and so bravely conceived that I, for one, am willing to forgive these trespasses.

Mr. Brook's production is, I'm told, largely prompted by an essay, "King Lear or Endgame" by the Polish critic Jan Kott, who sees Lear as a Shakespearean tragedy of the grotesque, "an ironic, clownish morality play" that "makes a mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth, and the heaven promised after death."

In this conception, there is no need to worry about psychological truths. It doesn't concern itself with why a king, even one approaching senility, would arbitrarily carve up his kingdom and parcel it out among his three daughters on the basis of their love for him, nor why he could so arbitrarily disinherit the one daughter who loves him best for speaking sanely. These are simply the fateful mechanics by which Lear is set free in a universe that is quite as cold and terrifying as that in which Beckett's characters find themselves trapped in ash cans. (Interesting, because a very old but still active Peter Brook directed a Beckett-based play here in Washington – a short collection of Beckett’s scenes)

The people in Brook's Lear inhabit a kind of visual wasteland and live in places that look like frontier forts, and, except for the opening sequences, they have no subjects, only attending soldiers and servants. There is no music in this land, only crude sound effects, like those of the wheels of the rough wooden carts that serve as royal carriages.

What is most remarkable to me is that the director has been able to get so much of the beautiful text on the screen, so purely, through techniques that usually either overwhelm the language or make it preposterously theatrical. He uses lots of giant close-ups, individual zoom shots that separate the lines of a soliloquy and even a handheld camera that at times can barely keep up with the tumultuous action…

Of course, Brook has an extraordinary cast. This is no  all-star assembly but an ensemble. No one, perhaps, but Scofield could withstand the camera's close scrutiny so effectively. His Lear, who looks like a Michelangelo God somehow fallen to earth, is a life force at the end of his rope. Most importantly, he speaks the lines as if they'd just been created—with intelligence and surprise…

Toward the close of the film, as Lear's world collapses into piles of corpses (Cordelia, the Fool, Goneril, Regan, Gloucester, almost everyone), the images become more and more pale, until, as Lear himself sinks slowly into death, the screen goes completely white. It is truly an end. Lear dies grotesquely, but unhumiliated, which, according to Brook, is as much of a victory as can ever be achieved by a magnificent clown.”

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