TV Review: King Lear, BBC Two

A contemporary adaptation of King Lear does little to prove its worth on BBC Two

“Some villain hath done me wrong”

A belated visit to this Bank Holiday TV offering and one I should probably have left alone. I’m not the biggest fan of King Lear, nor of Anthony Hopkins if I’m honest. But the notion of a contemporary adaptation and a deluxe level of supporting casting was enough of a draw for me to give it a try.

A co-production between the BBC and Amazon, this Lear has been adapted and directed by Richard Eyre. Trimmed down to a scant couple of hours and located in a contemporary England, it clearly has its eye on new audiences as much as your Shakespearean buff, and I’d be intrigued to know how the former reacted.

For I was no fan. The updating was superficial at best – a sweeping shot of the Shard making for a visually impressive opening but adding nothing of value, Lear’s unseen mad wanderings with a shopping trolley through Stevenage town centre scarcely credible in a smartphone age.

The adaptation works best when taking advantage of what TV can offer but theatre cannot. Showing the size and disruptiveness of Lear’s retinue (which offers real meat to his daughters’ refusal to house them), the up-close-and-personal shots that show every eye-roll and smirk, the contrast of starkly different locations.

And with a luxury cast, I was never truly bored. Emma Thompson and Emily Watson were thrillingly good fun as Goneril and Regan, Anthony Calf and Tobias Menzies strong as their lesser halves, and Christopher Eccleston’s Oswald proved a masterstroke in counter-intuitive casting.

But I never settled with Hopkins’ spikily irascible Lear, no sense of progression in self-realisation to give the end the emotional punch it needs. And knowing what has been cut, it was hard not to feel many sections were rushed and characters under-served, though one does wonder if anyone new to the play would have noticed.

Photos: Ed Miller/BBC/Playground Entertainment/Ed Miller

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