King Lear (RSC, 2008) directed by Trevor Nunn
King Lear is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays but I find that I have to be in a certain kind of mood for it. After all, it’s hardly a happy or simple narrative; whether you view it as a history (as the original 1608 is titled) or a tragedy (as it is titled in the revised 1623 version), you can probably still agree that it is a fairly depressing play with a plot which requires some effort to piece together. For this reason, my copy of the RSC 2008 film (featuring Ian McKellen and Romola Garai) has sat, unwatched, on my shelf for a while. However, I recently found myself with a free morning and decided that I was in the right frame of mind to sit down and watch something heavy.
My first reaction to the production, which is a purely aesthetic point but is something to be aware of, was that it was really dark. I had to turn the brightness up to full on the TV, and even then it was still somewhat difficult to see. This is partly, I’m sure, due to the difficulties of a stage production being released on a different media. However, since Nunn has set most of the production in the night, I wonder whether there is also a thematic reasoning behind this. The production continues to be predominantly dark until the final scenes, in which the scheming of Edmund, Gonoril, Regan, and the Duke of Cornwall is revealed. From being surrounded by darkness, the climactic events of the play are set during the day, in the open; the lies and plots of the antagonists are brought to light both figuratively and literally, and, despite the tragic ending, it is clear that light has had the victory over the dark.
It is pretty well acknowledged that one of the key themes of King Lear is blindness; as I expected, Nunn brought this out in more than just the text from the play by using the staging and gestures of the characters. In particular, Sylvester McCoy’s Fool is used brilliantly for this: he is over-the-top, as Shakespeare’s fools are, but his actions (as well as his words – but Lear’s Wise Fool is already established in most literary criticism) reveal a perceptiveness about Lear’s faulty sight with regards to his daughters. The other particularly good use of this theme came in the other blind narrative: that of the Duke of Gloucester. Now, despite having to leave the room when that scene came up, I do think that Nunn handled this storyline well, and this showed particularly in the battle scene of Act 5 Scene 2. In the play, as in this adaptation, the battle happens offstage, but showing the reaction of the blind Gloucester as the noises of the battle overwhelm him results an audience empathy I don’t recall feeling to the same extent in the written play.
This was an engaging adaptation of King Lear, and I remember there being a lot of excitement about it when it was on stage, but I wonder whether it has lost effect eight years down the line. I genuinely enjoyed the film; could find little fault with any of the adaptation choices; and thought that the acting was outstanding from the whole cast. However, I found that I did not come away thinking ‘that was amazing, I’ll watch it again soon’ but instead ‘that was a good adaptation, I wonder what more recent productions have been like’. Watching this has definitely inspired me to seek out some more productions of the play, and that is a good thing. And I would still say that if you are wanting a good, solid production of King Lear with brilliant acting, this is a production I would recommend.