King Lear: BBC's new modern-dress Shakespeare adaptation set to radically reimagine dying monarch

Sir Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and Emily Watson head all-star cast in new version set in contemporary Britain and directed by Richard Eyre

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 28 May 2018 00:00
Official trailer for King Lear

BBC2 is broadcasting a bold new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s 1605 tragedy King Lear on bank holiday Monday.

Starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as the conflicted monarch and directed by Richard Eyre, the new two-hour film situates the story in a parallel version of modern Britain.

The all-star cast reunites Sir Anthony with his Merchant Ivory leading lady Emma Thompson – the duo so memorably paired in Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) – and also features Emily Watson, Florence Pugh, Christopher Eccleston, Jim Broadbent, Andrew Scott and Jim Carter.

Sir Anthony – now 80, still probably best known for his immortal turn as serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991) and most recently seen in HBO’s Westworld (2016 onwards) – helped devise the project with Eyre.

It will feature scenes set in shopping centres and refugee camps, with Stevenage town centre replacing the heath where Lear and his Fool rave in a thunderstorm. Gloucester (Broadbent) is reimagined as the prime minister.

Sir Anthony has played Lear twice before at the National Theatre in 1986 and 2002 and is one of many distinguished male actors of advanced years to have played this most challenging and rewarding of parts.

Theatrical knights Donald Wolfit, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield and Donald Sinden were all celebrated for their interpretations of the mad king and, more recently, Geoffrey Rush, Simon Russell Beale and Ian McKellen have won acclaim in the role.

Eyre previously directed The Hollow Crown cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays for the BBC in 2012 and has described Lear as “the ultimate family drama: a monstrous, tragic tale of a family destroying itself”. He directed Lear at the National in 1997, a landmark production starring Ian Holm, Anne-Marie Duff and Timothy West.

Shakespeare’s drama, with its theme of a great man facing the end of his life and forced to decide how best to carve up his kingdom among his daughters, has proven surprisingly versatile to adaptation over the years.

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It has provided the basis for at least two Westerns – Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954) with Spencer Tracy and Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie (1955) with James Stewart – with ranchers and land barons sharing Lear’s dilemma and fears for his legacy after death. Lear was also a key reference point in the writing of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III (1990).

One of the most beautiful and spectacular adaptations of the play is surely Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), a late epic from the great master of Japanese cinema.

Relocating Shakespeare’s medieval drama to the plains of Mount Aso in the Sengoku epoch, the scale of Ran is extraordinary, the 75-year-old director marshalling hundreds of Samurai extras on horseback and orchestrating sprawling battles and castle sieges.

King Lear will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9.30pm on bank holiday Monday

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