True to form, I prepare for Antaeus to begin study sessions on KING LEAR by watching every version of the play I can
get into my grubby hands. I started with the DVD library at Antaeus, and a TV version I’ve never seen which seemed like a recipe for a fascinating evening: Peter Brook directs Orson Welles in 1953. It would be theatrical, at the very least! I couldn’t wait to get home and pop it into the DVD player, especially after reading what Welles said about Lear, even back then: In our consumer society we are encouraged to forget that we will ever die, and old age can be postponed by the right face cream. And when it finally does come, we’re encouraged to look forward to a long and lovely sunset.
Without going too far into how obsessed Welles was with Lear throughout his entire career (staging it as a schoolboy, and various attempts at staging it until the disastrous City Center of New York production in 1956, marking the end of his theatrical career). My expectations were high.
The opening scene didn’t disappoint. Welles as Lear looked like a pretty nightmarish version of a storybook king, one whose pages had perhaps been left out in the rain a few too many times. He literally ripped a crudely drawn map of his kingdom into pieces with a large carving knife, throwing it at his daughters’ husbands after they proclaimed their ‘love.’ There has yet to be a truly satisfying translation of the aside on the TV or movie screen, so I let go of Cordelia’s concerns being a VO while Natasha Perry looked pensive in white among her dark sisters.
Everything moved along pretty well until about fifteen minutes into the story: where was Edmund? No “Why bastard,” no “Excellent foppery of the world”—how can you do Lear and omit the “excellent foppery of the world?”
When we got to the storm and all my fears were confirmed, I turned it off. I’ll soon move on to the recent RSC’s version with Sir Ian McKellan; even though I’ve heard mixed reviews, at least I’ll see the play, the story Shakespeare intended.
-Cindy Marie Jenkins