Late last year, as winter fell over London, a group of storied British actors gathered in a rehearsal room for two weeks at Pinewood Studios watching 80-year-old Anthony Hopkins unfurl the fury of King Lear.
The ensemble cast, which includes Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, Florence Pugh and Christopher Eccleston, was assembled by theater and film director Richard Eyre, who previously directed Hopkins in a film rendition of “The Dresser.”
“The plot of ‘The Dresser’ involves an aging actor who is playing King Lear, and he goes onstage and plays Lear throughout the original story,” Eyre recounts. “There’s a lot of talk about ‘King Lear,’ so between takes Tony and I used to talk about the play. We talked a lot about it and eventually the producer, Colin Callender, said ‘Why don’t you make a movie?’”
The result is a new version of “King Lear” that premieres Sept. 28 on Amazon. The adaptation, a co-production between Amazon Studios and BBC shot last winter following a two-week rehearsal process, is unlike any of its predecessors. Originally set in the pre-Christian era of Britain and normally performed onstage at over three hours, the play takes on new life on the small screen.
“Richard said to me, ‘Maybe you ought to have another go at that,’” says Hopkins, who first played the role in 1987 at age 50 in a theater production by David Hare. “I thought, ‘Yeah.’ I’d wanted to do it for years because now I was at the right age. And I felt it in my bones, really. I just knew inside how to play the man. I took the following year after ‘The Dresser’ to work on it and to learn the whole part. I went through it bit by bit, line by line to see what interpretations I could bring to it instead of the same thing.”
Eyre pared Shakespeare’s words to a neat two hours and set the story in a contemporary world, with Lear as a tyrannical military dictator who takes up residence in the Tower of London.
“I thought, ‘I really don’t want to have to create some kind of mythical ‘Game of Thrones’ world,” Eyre says. “What if it were to be in contemporary costume but filmed in an historical building? I thought the paradox would work and, for me, it does.”
Adds Eccleston, who fought for the small role of Oswald simply because he wanted to be in the room with Hopkins, “I think a lot of people come to Shakespeare with associations, like Elizabethan costumes, etc. This ‘Lear’ is very current. What I think Eyre is trying to do is foreground the issues and the narrative, the issue of power and the impact of power on family. What we’re dealing with really is the essence of the play.”
I’d wanted to do it for years because now I was at the right age. And I felt it in my bones.
Ultimately a tale of parents and children, “Lear” centers on a malicious, brutal father who asks his three daughters which one loves him best so he can divide the kingdom among them. When they fail to comply with his wishes, chaos ensues and Lear falls into a state of madness, resulting in a deeply tragic end.
Eyre offered Thompson the role of Goneril, Lear’s eldest, and cast Watson and Pugh in the respective roles of Regan and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan are often portrayed as bitterly evil, pitted against their father without remorse. Here, though, the actors wanted to ensure that the characters had a real psychological grounding. Thompson and Watson, in their first time working together, spent hours discussing the sisters’ past.
“I loved re-interpreting the cruelty of Goneril and Regan as coming from very messed women who’ve been abused all through their childhoods, emotionally and probably physically,” says Thompson, who studied “King Lear” extensively in school and once played the Fool in a theater production. “It all made so much sense. It’s funny because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it portrayed in quite that way before. We had such a good time working out the relationship of the sisters with Florence Pugh. The sisters tell us a lot about what life must have been like.”
Watson notes, “The two daughters are very damaged by their father, and it seems to me by their attitude to him and the way they deal with him is only one or two degrees off from reasonable because his behavior was so chaotic and demanding and abusive. We experience on human terms someone who is a very powerful male figure controlling everything with horrible favoritism.”
She adds, “It happened around the same time as the Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement was going on and it just felt so part of that. It felt strongly like, ‘How did these abused women grow up? What’s motivated them? What’s pushed them to who they are?’ It was every woman’s story, really. Doing it on film allows you a calibration of what that is in a way that allows you to get more inside it. The film gives you more access to the subtlety of it.”
Hopkins made the play his own psychological study, focusing on his personal experiences with his father and grandfather as he imagined the character. The actor, who claims he’s “not a well-informed Shakespeare student,” was particularly interested in what results when a man shows no outward kindness. In the film, Eyre underscores this point with militaristic imagery. Lear and his soldiers hop in and out of massive black SUVs and invade the stately homes where Goneril and Regan take up residence, tramping mud all over the white carpets in an act of sheer emotional apathy.
“He doesn’t understand gentleness or love,” Hopkins says of Lear. “He’s with his guys at the pubs out drinking and disregards his daughters. In fact, he’s turned them into neurotic people themselves. My grandfather and my father didn’t have time for hugs and kisses and all that. They never hugged. They never spoke of love. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s how I understood life to be, and I’m still like that. [This performance] came out of my muscular self.”
Hopkins, who delights in keeping fit and being able to do take after take even when shooting a night scene in a rainstorm, brings an indescribable intensity to the role. His performance comes from a place of immense passion and, the rest of the cast members say he is the best Lear of all time. Even Eyre, who directed Ian Holm onstage in the play, can’t deny it: “I think he’s the best King Lear ever,” he says.
“He is determined, if you watch him, to capture naturalism in this very ornate language,” Eccleston notes. “He’s a very visceral gut and heart actor. I agree with him that I don’t think acting is an intellectual pursuit. It’s emotional and instinctive, and he’s setting the tone for this.”
“What’s been really exciting has been for me to see how my heroes, all these extraordinary actors, how much they care about it,” adds John Macmillan, a relative newcomer who joined the cast to play Edmund. “They take it so seriously. They think about every line. No stone is left unturned. That was really thrilling for me to go, ‘OK, you can have two Oscars in your pocket and still treat it like your first year out of drama school.’”
Hopkins, who turns 81 at the end of the year, could potentially be convinced to revisit the character. “I loved playing it,” he says. “It’s life-affirming to do stuff like that. I’d love to do it again. [But] if I did a stage performance, I’d do it for one night only.”
If not, Thompson and Watson have an idea for a follow-up, which fits perfectly into the current cultural concerns of Hollywood. “Emily and I thought it would be very good to write a new play called ‘Regan and Goneral Are Dead’ and write about those women,” Thompson says. “They’re terribly interesting. Shakespeare is very stimulating to play with. You discover so much. Re-interpreting is a great privilege, really.”
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time, Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)