During the middle of the twentieth century, two great theatrical movements took shape that would come to dominate the post-war theatre: In Great Britain, Peter Hall, Peter Brook, and John Barton revived the classical tradition with a renewed emphasis on spoken verse. In the U.S., building on an earlier Russian school, psychological and emotion-driven acting came to dominate cinematic and television screens. Aside from Joss Whedon’s quirky Much Ado About Nothing (2012), it is very rare to find a Shakespeare film that is not thoroughly from the former school. Alexander Barnett’s 2017 film version of Shakespeare’s King Lear is a polar opposite. It is insistently American from its use of U.S. dialects to its method acting styles, which makes it intense, dark and, well, unique.
This independent film looks like nothing so much as classic American anthology television series, like Playhouse 90, on which its star and director, Alexander Barnett, first rose to prominence.
Barnett later turned to stage direction, at which he showed a special affinity for Arthur Miller and his American contemporaries. He is now best known for his European tours with his theatre company, Classic Theatre International, which produced gutsy English language productions of both Shakespeare and American Golden Age classics for non-English speaking audiences. The virtues and flaws of his new film have their roots in this experience.
Barnett’s film is dark and claustrophobic, turning its low budget to advantage. It cleverly uses scant resources to suggest an immense, ominous and oppressive world. The storm scene on the heath, in particular, is rather obviously filmed in a studio but is effectively built of shallow-focus close-ups, evocative lighting, and a lot of fog. The set decoration is by Stephenie Yee, with costumes by Stefanie Cryton. Cinematography is by Justin Chiet.
Throughout the film frequent fades-to-black give it that distinctive look used by theatrical productions moved to a television studio for live broadcasts (complete with commercial breaks) in the 60s. The film is also released in a fifteen-episode format, which the blackouts facilitate. Their prevalence suggests that this might even be the formatting in which the film was conceived. Because it runs just a few minutes short of four hours, seeing it with frequent breaks has decided advantages.
The cast is almost entirely made up of unknowns, and none are theatrical Shakespeare specialists. The aim of this film, however, is not same as that of those made in the RSC tradition. The preferred technique here is emotional power and psychological menace. Given this aim, this is, unsurprisingly, the least rhetorical of the thirty+ versions listed on IMDb. The actors so studiously avoid any historic pronunciations, elisions, or heightened verbal effects that it would not be clear to anyone who did not otherwise know it that much of the play was written in verse. Instead, like its U.S. television predecessors, it goes directly for raw human emotion, featuring a particularly rough and naturalistic style. There is a reason this style came to dominate American film and television in its time, and although it is quite unlike traditional British Shakespeare, it often yields excellent results on its own terms here. Particular standouts are an intensely moving Eric Michael Smith as Edgar and Jared Doreck as his half-brother, Edmund. Peter Holdway, as Kent, is also consistently strong.
Most other actors start slowly and the performances only eventually find their stride, including that of Barnett in the title role. He gets better in the later scenes of the film, but lacks the voice and technique to drive the early scenes. (To be fair, he intentionally underplays the beginning – finding the usual highly contrasting beginning too theatrical. On the film’s website he says “I see Lear as a man who, right from the start, is still filled with humanity and empathy but has lost the practice of it and allowed his worst traits to become dominant.”)
All three actresses playing his daughters (Samantha Dena as Regan, Leah Filley as Goneril, and Alexandra Cohler as Cordelia) are severely handicapped by an excessively static first scene. All find firmer footing the longer the film runs, but it takes a patience to wait for the performances to open up. Likewise, Jim Zidar’s Gloucester is not very interesting until after his blinding scene, when his very real remorse about having mistrusted Edgar finally gives him an emotional touchstone.
As frustrating as it is to wade through the first two, very slow-moving, hours of this film there are real rewards in the second half. Both Barnett and Zidar are searing in the storm and Dover scenes, and the final plot-intense half hour is heart-rending.
If you are looking for a single definitive version of the play to watch on film, this probably isn’t it. It lacks the lyricism and sophistication that we associate with the great tragedies on film. If, however, (like me) you enjoy the exercise of comparing and contrasting performances, it is hard to think of a better second version because it feels so different from almost all other available choices. It has a muscularity of language and overwhelming emotionalism that is uncommon in Lear films.
For American student audiences, in particular, this version of the play offers an experience with very few barriers. It is in a familiar dialect, without much of the traditional artifice that Shakespeare productions usually employ. It is a relatively uncut version of a conflated quarto/folio edition, so what they see and what they read is similar. In the fifteen-episode format, it is easily incorporated into classrooms with hour-long meetings with ample time for discussion after.