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  • Warning: Spoilers
    ***Look, the play's been around for 400 years, so it's unlikely that my comments will contain any genuine spoilers***

    I'm sorry that so many people don't like this version of King Lear and mention Olivier's performance in particular as something they object to. I think that Olivier's performance is awesome. It contains the essence of a once-powerful man struggling to achieve some control over his decline. It seems like something grown within him rather than lines he had to deliver. The descent into madness and that quiet, miserable interlude before death are faultless. I've sat hopefully through so many versions of the play over the years, and squirmed at the bombastic acting of those scenes, but in this version it really doesn't occur to me that I'm watching a play. When the central character is as engrossing as Olivier makes him, all the sub-plots and other characters fall into place.

    Never having been much of a fan of Olivier's screen work, I was surprised to discover that he was every inch as great an actor as is usually claimed.
  • I've never been that impressed with Olivier's acting. His Hamlet seemed quite boring. That changed after I saw this and his "Merchant of Venice." As Olivier got older, he got better. No more grandstanding, no more showy heroes. Having seen other Lears waste the role with constant shouting or with boringly stone-faced acting, I was impressed with the range of emotion Olivier revealed here. This Lear was the only one I could pity. He seems more hurt than angry by Cordelia's "Nothing." He shifts instantly between self-pity, blind rage, and knowledge, just as Lear does in the text.

    The music was awful. Terribly melodramatic. Almost ruined the film.

    Diana Rigg is absolutely chilling as Reagan and the Fool is touchingly dependent on Lear. Far less caustic than I imagined him.

    This isn't the "definitive" Lear. There isn't one. But this comes close.
  • The key to Olivier's performance is also the key to the play. Lear has been an absolute monarch for so long that he thinks of his royal status as a personal attribute. He therefore takes for granted that he will still be treated as a king (without the burden of royal responsibilities) when he has given up the land and authority that are the basis of his power. His attitude recalls the words of Shakespeare's Richard II: "Not all the waters of the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king." Events in that play prove how wrong he was.

    Lear's position has also isolated him from the realities of everyday life and genuine human emotion. His tragedy is the price he pays for rediscovering those realities. His nobility is shown by his willingness to acknowledge his error and pay the price: "Oh I have ta'en too little care of this..." Olivier's performance, more than any other on film, shows this process of coming to terms with the realities of human life, and the falsity of court life; and being driven insane by the shock until his recognition of Cordelia brings him back. Olivier shows us what Lear is going through with hundreds of small gestures, movements, inflections of voice, and facial expressions. By comparison, he makes other actors in the role seem wooden, and he reveals how an "old fart" can regain his nobility by facing the truth.
  • An all-star cast takes on Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. Laurence Olivier is Lear -- once a mighty king, now a weak, jealous old man. Tired and in need of rest, he divides his kingdom among his three daughters. Cordelia, the youngest, is good and kind, while Regan and Goneril are wicked schemers who soon turn against the king and try to murder him! Lear has loyal friends, like Kent the noble, and his jester, the Fool. Colin Blakely makes Kent into the perfect, rugged sidekick, as brave and reliable as Sam in LORD OF THE RINGS. And John Hurt makes the haunting, half-crazed fool as helpless and pitiable as Gollum, without all the creepy sliminess.

    But the real stars of the play are actually the villains. Diana Rigg is delicious as Regan, the younger of the two "wicked sisters." Even when she is shiveringly evil, (joking about Gloucester's pain as she pokes out his eyes!) she remains a stunningly desirable woman. And the twisted affair between Regan and the studly but wicked Edmund is much more erotic and involving than in most productions. Robert Lindsay captures the gigolo side of Edmund perfectly, always teasing and tempting and making poor love-struck Regan literally pucker up to kiss the empty air. Diana Rigg really plays all sides of the character -- watching her pout and sulk in her tent would be sweetly endearing if she weren't so truly and completely cruel. As a result the viewer is spellbound, unable to resist the evil but horrified by the inevitable tragedy.

    With an all-star cast, original scenery and a haunting musical score, this bold production is Shakespeare at the summit!
  • The whole production was beclouded with grayness, as suits the theme of seeing/sight, yet the acting was elegiac. Diana Rigg and Dorothy Tutin were as seeming kindly as they were brutal. Robert Lindsay's Edmund was as poisonous as he was seemingly loving and loyal. But what I take away most specially was Olivier, as Lear, lifting a lock of his dead Cordelia's hair in his bowed hands to his face, taking a breath, a last scent. I cried. It was a most elegant summary of a parent's loss.
  • A very good version of _King Lear_ - Olivier plays it poignantly, you can see his Lear's overweening vanity and his profound humility. Robert Lindsay is my favourite Edmund ever - you immediately love him and wish him well despite the fact that he is a b*ftard (in all senses of the word - haha). Dorothy Tutin's Goneril has the most disapproving glare you have ever seen and her frolicking mutton act is painful to watch if you're a middle-aged woman. Hurt's fool is a wee bit too pathetic and Cordelia's weepiness is not appealing -- Diana Rigg's Regan is certainly convincing at getting across the hidden nastiness that outdoes Goneril. Gloucester is quite perfect in his rough affection. I've seen this many times and I still enjoy watching it for the nuances. The fight between Ed and Ed is a little much. It's too bad it looks quite so made-for-TV. I'm looking forward to Branagh blowing all the meanings up into big cartoons for us when he does his version of Olivier's _Lear_.
  • I had seen King Lear on the stage with Louis Calhern when I was too young to fully appreciate it. The Olivier version was deeper with fine nuances in his performance evidencing his full insight of the meaning of this tragedy. A must for every parent. It teaches one more than all the popular books on parenting.
  • I am becoming increasingly aware that some of my favorite actors are just dumb, that they don't have a vision as grand as the work they are a part of. I don't know that this should be so surprising, given what it takes to be an actor.

    Olivier both acts and directs here, and what we have is a shame because he just doesn't understand this play, the important half anyway. Half of the play is about the relationships among people, specifically about the parent-child relationship and its regal surrogate of fealty (the fool, Kent and Gloucester to the King). When Olivier is relating to one of these, he is marvelous.

    But half of the play is about Lear's relationship to unseen demons, sprites, devils. He sees and relates to these as intensely and with as much duration as with the daughters. (This is mirrored by Gloucester who cannot see them.) In this part of the play, roughly the middle, the language comes alive as it takes us into the Elizabethan equivalent of science fiction. This is some of the best language in Shakespeare, which is to say the best stuff anywhere.

    And what does Olivier give us? Mumbling, sometimes under the wind noise. The fulcrum of this magic is the sequence with the Fool and Poor Tom. It is the heart of the magic, which Shakespeare later amplified with the `trial.' Olivier cuts most of that, and gives us a muddle. (Literally, Tom wallowing in the mud.)

    The music is horrid, as it is with his much earlier Hamlet. The swordplay is bombastic. The sets are cheesy, especially the faux Stonehenge. If he understood the importance of Stonehenge, why drop the notion of magic in the core of the play? I just don't get it: I don't understand how he couldn't get it.

    At the very last page, Lear kneels over the dead Cordelia and says `my poor fool is hanged.' Then looking for life in a magical revival asks to have HER button undone, which likely undoes a garment like that we have seen on the long-lost Fool. Rich stuff that, as big a twist as `Sixth Sense.' But Olivier slurs over on his way to rambling about dogs and rats and then asks for HIS button to be undone. My my.

    Advice: Lear is one of the very best of the plays. I'll grant that Olivier is a fine actor, but this is a very poor offering indeed. Ignore.
  • King Lear is a rough-hewn, majestic work of genius which addresses issues of life and family that we can all identify with, 400 years later. It is a difficult play to get right, on screen or on the stage because it demands the greatest acting from the best available actors.

    And this gripping performance manages to do it. The sets are cheap, the video quality is poor and murky but the powerful work of a terrific Laurence Olivier and a faultless cast of Britain's finest Shakespearean actors shines through.

    One poor performance can ruin a production like this, but every single actor rises to the occasion, and each character is well-realised and credible. There is not a single weak performance, even from those with the smallest roles.

    The poetry flows, the imagery is beautiful and moving and the themes are brought into sharp relief. From the first scene, you will not need a text of the play to understand what is going on.

    With Olivier gone and Branagh still several decades from being old enough to take on the role, we can expect this to be the definitive version for years to come.
  • peacham29 March 2000
    Olivier turns in one of the most brilliant performances of his career in the title role of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.His Lear is not a God like King shooting fire from the heavens upon all that cross him,but a petulant Old Man far too aware of His mortality.The subtlety of Olivier's performance shine through every scene,particulary in Act V's "Never,never,never" speech. The production is also blessed with one of the finest supporting casts ever assembled. Diana Rigg and Dorothy Tutin add such bitchy realisim to Regan and Goneral that We can connect them easily with People We have known,Robert Lindsay is a very cunning off the edge Edmund and Leo McKern is touching as the ill fated Duke Of Gloucester.Anna Calder Marshall and John Hurt also shine in their all too brief appearances as Cordelia and Foll. The direction is tight and focused and the mood chilling.This is a Lear to be watched Over and Over for the sheer magnetisim of the performances and the exquisite style of the piece.
  • This TV production was Laurence Olivier's final great performance, playing Lear at the age of 75 (beyond him perhaps on stage but cleverly done here).

    He is supported by a large cast of stage actors - Dorothy Tutin, Anna Calder-Marshall and Diana Rigg as his daughters; Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall as the warring brothers Edmund and Edgar; Colin Blakely as Kent; Leo McKern as Gloucester; John Hurt as The Fool - all of which make their impact. The staging is memorable and pulls the viewer in to the action.

    Comparable to really being there watching the greats at work in the theatre, and a fantastic piece of television drama.
  • I read 'King Lear' for Advanced Higher English, and thoroughly enjoyed the play. However, I just couldn't bear this film. As a student of Film Studies also, this was really more than I could stand. Poorly acted, confusing, awful music, and terribly produced and created, I was very disappointed, especially as it is such a fantastic play, and there have been wonderful film interpretations of Shakespeare in the past. It's just a shame they couldn't quite do a decent interpretation of this one. Maybe its a call that Baz Luhrmann should call.

    All in all very disappointing. If you can cope with almost three hours of Olivier as a raving lunatic and everyone else as confusing clones of each other, then go for it. Otherwise, ignore at your peril.
  • The foremost Shakespearean actor of the 20th century took on what he considered his most challenging role when he did a television production of King Lear in 1983. Laurence Olivier said that because Lear is on stage so much of the time as the title character and is an old man, that it's an impossible role to play when you're young and starting out. And by the time you have the acting chops for the job you might just be too old to endure the rigors of playing it on stage.

    Olivier had retired from the stage in the early Seventies and he would not take on the rigors of a play. But this televised production is his swansong to the immortal Bard. It's a tribute to Olivier's skill as an actor that he gets all the emotions going with Lear at once, pride, vanity, sorrow, and a bit of stupidity thrown in.

    The story of the old king dividing his realm of Britain comes from the early days post the Roman occupation of Britain. Lear is a mythical king much as Arthur is from that period. His greatest sin is that he stayed around too long, he's in his eighties and his daughters have been waiting for their inheritance. The Eighties is a decent lifespan for any human, but in those days it was nothing less than remarkable someone would live that long.

    Shakespeare also had a more recent example of a monarch giving up his power and dividing his realm. The great Emperor Charles V in 1555 gave up the Hapsburg empire which included both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Spain and all the lands in the old and new worlds it possessed. Spain went to his son and the Holy Roman Empire went to his brother. They had their problems, but it was sure more peaceful than how it went with daughters Regan and Goneril played by Diana Rigg and Dorothy Tutin. As for Charles V, he lived the rest of his life peacefully in a monastery away from the cares of running a huge chunk of the world's real estate, dying in 1557.

    There's a third daughter Cordelia played by Anne-Calder Marshall. When Lear the old fool asks each daughter how much they love him, the other two throw the flattery on with a shovel. Cordelia hesitates with her answer and gets banished in an arbitrary act. Absolute monarchs like Lear tend to act arbitrarily. That's part of the plot.

    The secondary storyline concerns the Duke of Gloucester played by Leo McKern and his sons, one legitimate and the other out of wedlock. The legitimate one Edgar is played by David Threlfell and Edmund the illegitimate son is played by Robert Lindsay. Edmund is a calculating villain much like Iago in Othello. He manages to turn the Duke against Edgar, but he's after much bigger stakes than that, wooing Regan and Goneril behind their husband's back. It leads to war and a wholesale slaughter of the cast much like Hamlet.

    Lear is a fool and has a fool played by John Hurt. Next to Olivier, he's the one you'll remember in the cast. Back in those days nobility were the only ones who could afford professional entertainment and the fool came on in his Harlequin outfit, say a few amusing things, but listen real close. Hurt sees an observes a lot and he's trying a few subtle suggestions to his master about the errors he made.

    Set in ancient times King Lear's story is one repeated over and over again about staying in power too long, the resentments will build and the intrigues will follow. Shakespeare saw enough of that in his time both with his two monarchs Elizabeth I and James I. But he couldn't write about them lest his head be parted from his shoulders. I do wonder if some of the court politicians in those reigns saw a bit of themselves in King Lear.
  • All minor reservations aside, this is a powerful and utterly compelling screen version of Lear. Olivier is near flawless, and at 75 years of age. His involvement in the role is -- as usual -- total. He plays up the fatuousness and foolishness of the old king, who has learned nothing throughout his long reign. His errors in judgement, which even a professional fool can see, and the resulting agony, bring him to madness rather than wisdom. All this Olivier portrays with awe-inspiring finesse, bravado and insight, that musical voice ranging all over the scale, and still possessing a vast dynamic range. Brilliant acting of a piece that haunts and harrows from beginning to end.
  • In any production of King Lear, we must see the lion in Lear and his raging battle between his age and failing mind. There must be a constant struggle between the Lear of old and the present Lear. If we don't see the towering Lear we're left with the ill, debilitated, sorrowful Lear, the conflict is gone and we never see his basic nature, which is the cause of decline. What makes him so fascinating and exciting (there is nothing exciting about Olivier's Lear) are his tremendous extremes of temperament. First and foremost he must always be a fighter and never give in to adversity. Olivier's Lear could never have been a towering figure, only a whining, feeble, self pitying grouch. In fact, this is exactly how he saw the role. In an interview at the time, he said, "Lear is an old fart". This, about the greatest, most towering and passionate tragic character ever created. The rest of the cast is also quite bad. Despite Gloucester's ignorance, credulity, and misapplied trust, he must have significant potential worth and the innate ability to learn and understand profound lessons about life. If Gloucester, as here portrayed, is loud, crude, obnoxious and stupid, a catharsis is impossible. Edgar comes across as a demented, weird, dull-witted creep, when in fact he should be an ingenuous, credulous, spoiled, inexperienced man who has a vast yet untapped intelligence, understanding and empathy. Albany is portrayed here as a lethargic, pedestrian slow-thinking dunce with no obvious appeal when he should be a sensitive, ethical and intelligent man. Edmund is played in this version as a weak, boyish, obviously villainous child who lacks the charm, confidence, fearlessness, dominance and supreme ability to dupe others. The quality that makes Edmund so convincing is his ability as with Iago)to lose himself completely in his assumed role. He should never slip out of character when duping Gloucester or the others. This actor, by contrast, indicates his contempt when the others aren't looking, something Edmund would never do. The actress playing Regan is determined to dominate Goneril, although the play calls for quite the opposite relationship. The Fool, although not a bad actor, comes across as analytical, sober and objective, when he should be a creature of nature. Pure instinct. Spontaneous, unpredictable and uncontrollable. The director of this pathetic production obviously had no understanding of this magnificent play. Almost all of his directorial choices are absurd: frequently he makes none at all. there are many examples, but citing them would give away the plot. Suffice it to say that the direction is devoid of nuance, passion and intelligence. The blocking is pedestrian: stilted, simplistic, unimaginative and unmotivated. The actors are given no sense of place or circumstance. Unfortunately, Olivier achieved his vision. This King Lear is indeed an old fart.
  • This version of Lear was made for television, and it shows. The scale is small, the sets cheap, the action cramped. However, Olivier's acting is something to be remembered. Lear comes across very convincingly as a pathetic, deteriorating, crumbling old man, weak and defenseless in spite of an unseen past of terrible power and - presumably - ferocious cruelty. Kurosawa's Japanese adaptation plays much more on the terrible past of Lear as counterpoint to the present weakness and madness, this English version leaves the lost power and cruelty only as a hazy background. If this is a defect of Olivier's acting, or whether it faithfully reflects his views on the character, I do not know. But I think Olivier did exactly what he wanted to do, focus on the old Lear, his weakness and his fading away, as a symbol of human nature in general, and of his own advanced age in particular. In the final scenes Lear appears shaven off his beard, showing the naked face of a very ancient man, not the face of an actor at all. There must be a reflection of Olivier's own becoming old and brittle and approaching death, on the deterioration and dying of Lear. And there is the weakest glimmer of hope, both for the character and for the actor, as dying Lear recovers lost love in the midst of destruction.

    Of the rest of the cast, the best characters in my opinion are Goneril and Regan, perhaps a little overplayed but very convincingly so, as the hard hearted, scheming sisters. The fool and poor Tom somehow are not quite convincing. Gloucester is moving but a little dumb. Kent is handsome and masculine. Cordelia is pretty. But no question, this is Lord Olivier's show.

    The score has justly been criticized as noisy and intrusive. Staging is not always clear enough for comprehension of the plot.

    All in all, this movie is well worth seeing. Perhaps there are better interpretations of Lear, perhaps more adjusted to Shakespeare's vision; however, this version has enough merit so as to stand by itself. And Olivier remains the quintessential Shakespearean actor of all times.
  • The entire cast of this production breathe quality into it, without exception. I accept the reading of Lear as a petulant, raging spoilt old man of former power, wanting to bestow his favours upon a grateful audience, expecting to live in grandeur from the ample residue of gratitude he expected to garnish from his generosity for some time forward. I accept the grabbing sisters and dumbfounded sibling, and I am spellbound by the parallel tale of Gloucester's progeny as it binds itself into the main theme. The idiocy of the king, as his retirement is filled with a carebound yet carefree madness, and the final realisation of Lear's love for Cordeila at her death took me through a full journey through the landscape, filling me with (sniffed in) tears when I first saw it in 1983 at 17 years old, and it is still powerful now. My only complaint is about the quality of the VHS version I have. If only I knew which was the best DVD version to replace it with...
  • At last we have the definitive "King Lear" for our century, and he is played, fittingly enough, by the greatest Shakespearean actor of our time, Laurence Olivier. King Lear had, up until this production, been one of the few great Shakespeare characters that Olivier had not made much of an impression as (he had played it onstage in 1946 in London). But he obviously re-thought his entire performance, and at 75, twice the age of most other Lears, tackled it again, succeeding brilliantly this time. One of the best examples of his ability to make memorable scenes out of tiny but important moments is his trying to get Cordelia (Anna Calder-Marshall) to flatter him with gushing words of love, as his other two daughters (played by Diana Rigg and Dorothy Tutin) have. "Nothing will come of nothing", he says with a loving smile, as if he were coaxing a child to talk, but with an almost subliminal hint of menace. His utimate humiliation and madness are truly mesmerizing and heartbreaking to see, even though we know Lear foolishly brought it on himself. And Olivier has surrounded himself with a brilliant supporting cast as well. The only drawback to this production is the monotonous , unvarying Stonehenge-like set, photographed as if through a fog.
  • dh4925 April 2000
    I got lost through the first half of Olivier's Richard III. But his Lear some twenty years later sucked me in by absolute force. It may have been a bit difficult for me to ever have seen his King Lear storming across the battlefield, his sentimental age was disarming and effective. Particularly in the first scene with his dividing of the kingdom. He and Cordelia shared some intensely effective moments. His final moments are also moving and quite worthwhile. He gets a bit lost in the melodramatics of the middle, and more whines and rants "Reason not the need" than may have been necessary, but on the whole his performance shows the craft of his decades as a respected Shakespearean performer. The supporting cast is also very strong with all the daughters with the possible exception of Cordelia coming off very well. Hurt seems a bit jumbled as the fool, but that may have been the idea, and the parting shot of him tries to answer the old question of what happens to the fool after he fades out of the text. Edmund and Edgar could really be brothers, and work well in opposing roles. Both actors seem to love to show off their teeth through bushy beards, but despite moments of scenery chewing, they get the job done well. Leo McKern shines out of the supporting cast as Glouster. He is by turns jovial, tormented, lost, pained and thoughtful. An excellent interpretation of that role makes the work engaging for the stretch of time when Lear is taking his "forth act break". The sets and music may be a little crude, but the idea was that the acting be the focus, and fortunately it is. Very very nice and effective theatrical work.
  • I credit this production with turning me on to Shakespeare, unfortunately at the end of my highschool career and not at the beginning. The performances are superb. Particularly memorable are Olivier and Diana Rigg. This production made the characters come to life for me in ways that previous Shakespeare productions on screen or stage had not.
  • I am quite fond of Shakespeare, and the story of King Lear really compels and moves me. I have to say I was really impressed with this 1983 version of the play. The story still has its emotional impact, I genuinely felt for Lear here, and the dialogue is absolutely wonderful and makes you feel all sorts of different emotions all at once.

    My only complaint with this King Lear is the music. I do agree it does get melodramatic and over-bearing and it sometimes doesn't fit the scene. Then in some scenes where it is welcome it isn't used at all. In my mind, either have music that enhances the drama or don't use it at all.

    Aside from that, everything else was superb. I was very taken with the filming, the setting is beautifully evoked as are the costumes and there are some very interesting camera angles and uses of lighting. The direction is strong too, and the performances are top notch. Anna Calder-Marshall, John Hurt, Robert Lindsey, Leo McKern and Colin Blakely all do some really effective work, but it is Laurence Olivier's superb and quite poignant performance in the pivotal role that drives it.

    Overall, very well done, elevated by the great acting of Olivier and co, and if it hadn't been for the music it would have been note-perfect. 9/10 Bethany Cox
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I have just finished reading Lear for AS English Literature, and our teacher showed us this production, and i was surprised at how much i liked about it.

    Olivier's acting portrays one of his greatest works, in his final major performance. His Lear shows both the mental instability of Shakespeare's Lear, and also at the same time the emotional struggle within him, as the story progresses. As he lifts Cordelia's lifeless body at the end, we see that he is truly a changed man from his experiences, and the fact that Olivier pulls off this EXCEEDINGLY powerful moment is only to be described by two words: Simply sublime David Threlfall's Edgar is also a very memorable part within the production. The way he portrays his Poor Tom alter-ego is incredibly well done, never letting the situation slip, even for a second, out of the insane nature he is attempting to use to mask his true identity.

    Diana Rigg's and John Hurt's performances were also awesome within their respective roles, with Hurt's Fool's attachment to Lear adding a new layer to the characters role within the play.

    I liked the change of the old tree that Edgar took Gloucester to becoming Stonehenge instead. It helped to create a very odd mood, which really added to the production. The idea of Gloucester sitting their blinded, with the flashes of the battle on screen work exceedingly well, and where in a stage version, you would just have Gloucester sitting alone for a certain amount of time, with the battle just being heard offstage, here we got to have the full experience of the battle scenes .

    If i have but one complaint, it would be the music! They crescendo'd at really stupid points, and then had no music, or not enough, when it was really needed.

    Other than the musical problems, there are not many ways in which i could fault this performance, other than perhaps that at times the sets seemed a little poorly done, but this is just to be expected of the fact that the film was made almost 24years ago, and it is for this reason to be expected that not much of the set would be computer generated, and that for this reason, only what they built would be there, so sometimes sets would look rather flat and basic I would have given it 10 Stars, but it is not a PERFECT production, as their are ways to improve, so 8 it is. Still wonderful though!!!!
  • I've seen a few of Shakespeare's plays on DVD which were very good. This one wasn't. After one hour of viewing, I didn't want to watch the rest. It was a drag (I haven't used that phrase in decades). It's productions like this that makes me wonder if Shakespeare is overrated. On the other hand, maybe it's like opera which appeals to a small but devoted group, though not to most people. And yet, once in a rare while an opera is produced in such a way that even non-opera fans enjoy it. If you're not a big Shakespeare fan you may want to avoid this version of King Lear.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    After an almost 60 year acting career, this was Laurence Olivier's final performance in a Shakespearean play. Produced by his brother-in- law David Plowright, it is an excellent adaptation of a classic tale of misplaced trust, filial ingratitude, blindness and the folly of mistaking appearances for reality. I think that it may be the saddest and darkest of all Shakespearean tragedies. It has been quite some time since I read it last but I don't think that there are any major omissions from the play.

    In one of his last major roles and one of his greatest, the 75-year-old Olivier is never less than absolutely compelling, in turn perfectly capturing Lear's vanity, anger, madness and finally humility when he is reunited with Cordelia. He dominates an extremely strong cast which includes Leo McKern, Dorothy Tutin, Diana Rigg, Jeremy Kemp, Robert Lindsay, John Hurt, David Threlfall and Anna Calder-Marshall. It's basically an acting masterclass.

    The scene in which Gloucester's eyes are plucked out by Cornwall is perhaps the most disturbing scene that I have ever come across any of the Bard's plays. Rather appropriately, however, Gloucester was played by McKern, who did not have a left eye in real life. The same, oddly enough, was true of Olivier's frequent collaborator Esmond Knight who makes a cameo appearance as the old man who helps Gloucester after he is blinded.

    Overall, this is second only to Kenneth Branagh's version of "Hamlet" as my favourite of the 14 Shakespearean adaptations that I have watched since January. It is brilliantly directed by Michael Elliot and the score adds a great deal to the proceedings while never underwhelming them. I'm delighted that Olivier ended his career as a Shakespearean actor on such a high.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    King Lear is Shakespeare's greatest play and very likely the greatest work in all of literature. Its themes are of the most profound nature: redemption; self-realization; the myth of universal justice; fortuitousness in the battle between good and evil; the nature of evil. The 80-year old Lear has been King for many decades. During his reign he has slowly and inexorably become blind to reality. He is a man of vast potential; a man of enormous passion, humanity, dignity and strength who has been inundated with lies, flattery, unchallenged obedience and false adoration. When the play opens, Lear's psychological state is such that he is often incapable of controlling his strongest emotions. Lear has always been a man of towering passion, but had the incredible mind and will to match it. Now, however, his purpose and control have been eroded by his increasingly irrational emotional state. In any production of King Lear, we must see the lion in Lear and his raging battle between his age and failing mind. There must be a constant struggle between the Lear of old and the present Lear. If we don't see the towering Lear we're left with the ill, debilitated, sorrowful Lear and the conflict is gone - we never see his basic nature, which is the cause of decline. What makes him so fascinating and exciting (there is absolutely nothing fascinating or exciting about Olivier's Lear) are his tremendous extremes of temperament. First and foremost he must always be a fighter and never give in to adversity. Olivier's Lear could never have been a towering figure, only a whining, crying, feeble, self pitying grouch. In fact, this is exactly how he saw the role. In an interview at the time, he said, "Lear is an easy role to do. He is simply an old fart". This, about a man who fights an epic and magnificent struggle against overwhelming physical and emotional turmoil and whose implacable refusal to surrender make him one of the greatest, most towering and passionate tragic characters ever created. And the most difficult portrayal in the entire Shakespearean canon. The actor portraying Lear can't drive the torment, confusion and bewilderment that emanates from Lear – they must drive him. No amount of brilliant faking will work. It's either real or not. We must see the torment. Olivier's whimpering, faked performance is totally devoid of this. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is also totally lacking. The actor playing Gloucester has four qualities throughout: grief, bluster, loud and louder. His voice is so unpleasant it's unbearable listening to him. He plays the same boisterous level continuously without the slightest nuance. Gloucester is an undiscerning, selfish, credulous and superstitious man. He is basically decent, but with a weak, impressionable nature. If Gloucester, as here portrayed, is loud, crude, obnoxious and stupid, a catharsis is impossible. Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, is a totally trusting, inexperienced and ingenuous soul who has vast, untapped potential. He goes through an incredible process of development and maturity. This Edgar comes across as a demented, weird, dull-witted creep. The idea, at the end of the play, that he may possibly become one of the leaders of Britain is too ludicrous and frightening to contemplate. Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son is willing to do anything to achieve his nefarious ends. He is not immoral, but amoral. He has the uncanny ability to unleash each woman's full sexual potential. This, plus his physical attractiveness, his feigned but convincing warmth and concern, his self-confidence and sense of humor make him an ideal, consummate lover. With the obvious obsession that Goneril and Regan have for Edmund, nothing less will suffice. In this version Edmund comes across as a weak, boyish, obviously villainous child who lacks the charm, confidence, fearlessness, dominance and supreme ability to dupe others. To think that this innocuous little boy conquers Goneril and Regan and comes within a hair's breadth of assuming the throne of Britain is hilarious. Albany, Goneril's husband, is a decent, sensitive, ethical and intelligent man who prefers to avoid altercation and acrimony. Unfortunately, he is portrayed here as a lethargic, pedestrian slow-thinking dunce with no obvious appeal or perception. Cordelia is not, as here seen, a sweet, frail, delicate ingénue. If she were, Lear would never favor her. She is, rather, much like Lear: resolute, dignified, proud, outspoken and fearless. This is why Lear adores her. Indeed, she must match Regan and Goneril in strength and tenacity. It's inconceivable imagining this Cordelia leading an army to rescue her father. The Fool comes across as analytical, sober and objective, when he should be a creature of nature. Pure instinct. Spontaneous, unpredictable and uncontrollable. As written, Goneril is the dominating sister; here we have the opposite. This Regan would have killed Goneril before she allowed herself to be murdered. The directing is abominable and senseless. Just a few examples. After Cordelia blatantly attacks her sisters' hypocrisy, they all embrace warmly. Ludicrous. When Edmund and Goneril are leaving together for Goneril's castle, Regan blatantly embraces Edmund in front of Cornwall, making clear her feelings for him. Absurd. Regan and Edmund could not have been alone together, much less been intimate, since Regan and Cornwall arrived at Gloucester's the same night as the blinding of Gloucester and the wounding of Cornwall. Regan walks out on Cornwall, leaving him to die after he's wounded by one of his men. Their last lines (which of course are cut) belie this. The fact is Regan and Edmund become intimate after Cornwall dies and Edmund returns with Goneril's message. I could cite numerous other examples. Suffice it to say that the direction is devoid of nuance, passion and intelligence. The blocking is pedestrian: stilted, simplistic, unimaginative and unmotivated. Ultimately, Lear, the 80-year old with the heart of a gladiator, should arouse in us, not tears, primarily, but awe that such a man could exist. Unfortunately, Olivier achieved his vision. This King Lear is indeed an old fart.
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