The TV afterglow of divine madness

On stage Ian Holm's King Lear was awesome, but will it translate to the small screen? asks Liese Spencer
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When Ian Holm played King Lear in Richard Eyre's production at the National Theatre last year the nation's hard-bitten critics went into raptures. Members of the audience cried, fainted and threw up, while outside queues waited for returns. One night as the diminutive actor left the stage after yet another ovation, Gene Hackman unfolded himself from his seat in the stalls. Towering above Holm he grabbed him by the face and growled admiringly, "what a workout!".

A year later, Holm sits basking in the afterglow of such divine madness. By any standards, his Lear was a roaring success. But for someone who suffered a nervous breakdown on stage in 1976 and fled the theatre for 15 years, Holm's come back is nothing short of miraculous. Nobody could blame him for crowing a little, but Holm sports a sweetly studied insouciance. "Paul Newman came to see it," he reveals casually, "Streep and Close were there - even Tony Blair."

For the ordinary punter, tickets were more difficult to secure. According to Holm, one couple who couldn't get into the show in London flew to Turkey to catch it on tour. Those who couldn't stretch to such international seat-bagging can take advantage of the BBC's rather cheaper armchair alternative on Saturday. Shot at Shepperton, this studio-bound, TV version maintains the same cast and abstract design as the original, trading the buzz of live performance for the starkly stylised tableaux of photographer Roger Pratt.

A veteran of Play for Today, Eyre defends television drama as "an art form in its own right", protesting that his small screen Lear "isn't just about reproducing the stage play or memorialising a great performance". But despite some subtle textual carpentry (which has reduced the play's running time by an hour) this seems to be exactly what the film's about. And why not? On stage, Eyre's intimate production emphasised the domestic over the epic, a reading which can only gain resonance when piped into the cathode heart of the family home.

Of course, there is always the worry that as Lear abandons himself to the elements, viewers will be putting the kettle on in the other room. "Shakespeare's hard to get right on television but the screens are a bit bigger these days," drawls Holm, adding wryly, "It is BBC2. I think they'll stick with us."

In the past, the ephemeral nature of theatre enshrined a long line of Lears - from Henry Irving to John Gielgud - in the mythology of popular memory. Despite being one of the few modern theatrical performances filmed for posterity, Holm was always aware of this pantheon pushing down upon him and the strange, sunset glory of the role. "People always say that when an actor reaches a certain point in his career then it's time to `give his Lear'. In other words, they're a couple of years short of retirement."

Holm's first experience of Lear came in 1959 when he played the fool to Charles Laughton's King. "It was more of a reading than a performance. Laughton wasn't well at the time and he'd often stop and say `Umm... could you take me back a moment?' The prompter would take him back to the beginning of the speech he'd dried on, and he'd say `no, further', then turn to the audience and say `I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen but this is just plot'."

Happily the 66-year-old Holm had no such problems remembering his lines. "I had to be physically fit, because you need such enormous stamina for the role, but mentally I didn't find it difficult at all". Given Holm's emotionally devastating delivery, it's surprising to discover that there was little Method in his madness. Instead, he would "lark around" with the rest of the company before going on stage, and hanging his performance on the verse. "The arias are so fantastic, they carry you along. I know it sounds corny, but you just get taken over."

Being swept away by what Shelley called "the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry existing in the world" was somewhat harder, admits Holm, with the film's fragmented shooting schedule. "It's odd recording scenes in a different order - the final waking up scene was the first one I had to shoot. And stopping and starting all the time means you lose momentum. I wouldn't say it was a let down but I did miss the drive of the play on stage, the audience reaction."

Still, after roles in everything from Alien ("that was 1979, 1 would have done anything then") to Stanley Tucci's Big Night ("I got to bite Isabella Rosellini's bum"), Holm is no stranger to cinema, and revelled in the chance to play to the camera instead. "The more I have to do with my face and eyes, the better I like it. As someone once said about film acting, the most difficult lesson to learn is to do nothing. For instance, when Lear confronts Cordelia and says `better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better' - it's a very long take and we just hold each others eyes. Because it was such an enormous close-up I was able to register what I was thinking, which is `you silly cow, why are you doing this to me?'"

One thing that won't be shown in massive close-up, is Holm's fleeting nude scene. "Nobody's ever done it before, but I didn't do it for that reason. It quite clearly says in the text `Lear tears off his clothes'. Traditionally there's a loincloth left, but I think it's important that he and Edgar have a coming together in the storm. It's a metaphorical undressing.".

Holm is still smarting about the "silly articles" prompted by his onstage nudity. "Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian, `I fail to see how Mr Holm could have possibly fathered three children with a member that size'. I mean really. The rather sweet thing was that all the ex-wives got together, and said `three children? It's five!'"

As the father of such a brood, has Holm ever found himself playing Lear? "No, certainly not, but it does help to understand the role. I seem to have played a lot of fathers with difficult children. I suppose I'm that age now." Indeed, when Holm finally got round to seeing The Fifth Element at his local Odeon and asked for a special concession, the man on the door said "OAP?". "I said, `no, what if you're in the film?'," he chuckles. A quick call to the manager, and Holm watched it free "with an audience of eight people. Four of them walked out."

Holm has several projects in development. There's a film with Judi Dench called The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, about a reunion of a 1930s all girl band, "in which I get to dress up as a woman" and talk of an adaptation of Terry Johnson's play Hysteria. His eyes shine at the idea of returning to the stage wth Anthony and Cleopatra. Lear is over, but not forgotten. "I miss the old bugger, but every so often I'll have a howl on the hills to remind me."

`King Lear', BBC2, Saturday 21 March.