I was always rather disappointed by the live TV King Lear directed by Peter Brook which Orson Welles starred in. I pretty much loathe Brooks’ film of KING LEAR with Paul Scofield too, but that’s based on my love of the play, my reading of it, and my feelings about what I’d want from an adaptation. Brooks’ film certainly has the courage of its convictions, and is almost a compelling and well-made film, if it weren’t for his ridiculous habit of cutting to the backs of people’s heads. (There are times, explained the Great Director, when you don’t want to see anything, you just want to listen to the text; but as it’s unacceptable to have the screen go black, he opted to show the backs of the heads. This, needless to say, perplexes and distracts the viewer far more than the faces of excellent actors ever would.)
The TV Lear, heavily cut to fit into a one-hour time slot, isn’t as radical a reinterpretation of the play as Brook’s later film, which strips it of emotion and nobility and tragedy and settles for a kind of lumpen, petrified grimness. What wrecks the TV play is Orson’s makeup, probably the worst he ever wore. To see his Lear, who looks like Krankor from PRINCE OF SPACE, with his cardboard beak, is to suddenly think far more highly or Gregory Arkadin’s tonsorial choices. Wearing a false beard on top of your head, matching the one on your chin, at least suggests a kind of symmetry, like a playing card. As with his regrettable IMMORTAL STORY makeup, Welles is attempting suggest old age by painting shadows on his face like a set from CALIGARI. But he’s gotten carried away, and ended up darker than his Othello, and blotchy with it. Welles as Lear is somewhat embarrassing to look at, and I love Welles too much to take any pleasure in being embarrassed about him.
The worst moment in the telecast is the best moment in the play. The reconciliation scene is the bit that moves audiences to tears. I saw a Kenneth Branagh production with Richard Briers as Lear, and THAT moved me to tears. I don’t recall feeling anything except disgruntlement at the Scofield version, mirroring the Scofield performance, but in general the scene seems almost impossible to screw up.
Welles, alas, blows his lines. Lear says to his loving daughter, Cordelia, whom he has wronged ~
Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
This refers to Lear’s casting out of Cordelia, for which she should hate him, and to his other daughters’ casting out of him, after he gave them his kingdom.
But what Welles says, unfortunately, in the last line, is ~
They have some cause ~
Here, he pauses. He has just made Lear say that his wicked daughters, who kicked him out in a storm, had good reason to do so. This makes no sense. Worse, Welles realises that if he finishes the line, he will be making things much, much worse. But the alternative is to go back and correct himself, making the mistake completely obvious to the television public. I think we can see him thinking, calculating, for an anguished second. He decides to plough on ~
you have not.
So now he’s saying that his banishment of Cordelia was justified and she’s not entitled to hold it against him. Worse, this means that Cordelia’s next line, “No cause, no cause,” is not a daughter forgiving her old father’s terrible flaws and saying that she loves him and nothing has stood in the way of that. Now it means that she’s just agreeing with him that he was right to give her the boot.
Fortunately the scene gets back on track after this and they do the lines as written. But Welles is still wearing a ludicrous great hooter.