Shakespeare in Film – Part 11 – King Lear – Olivier’s 1983 Version

King Lear is a very strange play to watch.  All of the virtuous characters are banished, disowned or fugitives from justice while all the rest of the characters that aren’t out and out villains are seriously flawed and unable to distinguish good from evil.  There is a continuous downward spiral as the evil characters consolidate their positions and everyone else including the hapless Lear ricochet from one disaster to the next.

I first saw this play back in the 1970s as a Shakespeare in the Park presentation in Central Park with James Earl Jones as Lear.  Some extremely timely thunderstorm activity by Mother Nature made for an exciting performance and I have enjoyed the play since.  But I will admit that the Storm scene is extremely odd to sit through.  Even the actors seem to be slightly at a loss as to how they are supposed to relate to each other during this weird act.

The 1983 version of King Lear starring Laurence Olivier is a British Television production and it is done on a television sound stage and it has the look of a sound stage made to look like a theater stage.  That is not to say that it is badly filmed but rather that it does not have the production values that the budget of a major Hollywood movie can allow.

The cast in addition to Olivier includes some well-known faces.  Lear’s Fool is played by John Hurt.  Leo McKern, who American audiences might know from the British import television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” plays Gloucester.  And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s spy series “The Avengers” then you would remember Diana Rigg who here plays one of Lear’s evil daughters (Regan).  The rest of the cast is unknown to me but overall, the acting is reasonably good.

In my opinion, you watch this version for Olivier and to a lesser degree John Hurt.  They provide the stand out performances that elevate this above an average television version.  It is sad to see how frail Olivier is here.  He was 75 years old at the time and in extremely poor health.  This was his last attempt at Shakespeare.  But he gives the lines their due.  He allows Lear to make sense to an audience struggling with this bizarre set of characters and circumstances.  He was still a great actor even here at the end of his life.  That is not to say that the performance was perfect, although I believe it had more to do with technical problems of a television production.  During the Storm scene Lear’s voice is difficult to understand over the wind and rain noises.  If the video has captioning then this will not be as big a problem.  Also, some of the staging is a little odd to me.  The torches that were used during some of the scenes look very odd and I assume this was a limitation of the television cameras used to capture the action.

Overall, this is not a masterpiece like Olivier’s Hamlet or even a slick commercial production like Henry V that had a robust budget and a great supporting cast.  This is a modest production with a mixture of greater and lesser talent.  But it is your only chance to see Laurence Olivier as King Lear.  If that interests you then you should see it if it is available to you from whatever source you obtain your movies.