About the Film
Shakespeare's most sublime drama comes to Masterpiece Theatre in the acclaimed Royal National Theatre production of King Lear, starring Ian Holm.
Directed by Richard Eyre, the 1997 London production has been creatively restaged for television, capturing an ensemble performance that is widely considered the finest King Lear of 1990s, with a star who bears comparison to the greatest Lears of all time. The performance earned Holm the 1998 Olivier Award for Best Actor.
"This is an extraordinary piece of theater which only a limited number of people were able to see on stage," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre. ""We are very pleased to be presenting it to an audience of millions."
The Times Literary Supplement hailed the production as "an austerely powerful rendering." Benedict Nightingale of The New York Times praised Holm for attempting "as much as any Lear I've seen," and achieving a performance that "touches greatness."
First performed in 1606, the play is taken from an ancient British folktale about an aging monarch who divides his kingdom among his three daughters -- Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia (Barbara Flynn, Amanda Redman, and Victoria Hamilton) -- based on their declarations of love for him. Goneril and Regan profess extreme affection, and each receives one third of the kingdom. Strong-willed Cordelia, disgusted with their hollow flattery, says she loves her father according to her duty, no more or less. Infuriated with this reply, Lear divides her portion between Goneril and Regan. Taking Cordelia's side, the Earl of Kent (David Burke) is banished but remains loyal to the king, assuming a disguise to protect him from his two supposedly loyal daughters.
As this story unfolds, Shakespeare weaves a parallel plot of betrayal around Lear's trusted advisor, the Earl of Gloucester (Timothy West), who is tricked by his bastard son, Edmund (Finbar Lynch) into believing that his legitimate son Edgar (Paul Rhys) is plotting against him. At Edmund's instigation, Edgar flees, fearing for his life.
Revealing their true heartlessness, Goneril and Regan turn against their father, denying him the entourage he requests and driving him out of doors into a storm. Gloucester, who shows pity for the old king, is suspected of complicity with the invading French; his eyes are put out by Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall, who receives a lethal wound in the ensuing fray. Edgar, temporarily deranged and reduced to a beggar-like state, tends his father.
Lear, whom rage and despair have deprived of his wits, is then conveyed to Dover by the faithful Kent, where Cordelia receives him. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan have turned their affections to Edmund, who with Albany leads English troops in their defeat of the French. Embittered by rivalry, Goneril poisons Regan and then takes her own life. Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned and, by Edmund's order, Cordelia is hanged; Lear dies from grief. Edgar, avenging Lear's death, proves the treachery of his brother Edmund and kills him.
Throughout the action, one of Shakespeare's most inspired creations -- the Fool (Michael Bryant) -- keeps up a brutally honest commentary that lays profound truths bare.
Fool to Lear: "Thou should'st not have been old till thou hadst been wise."
Lear: "O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven... "
(Act 1, Scene 5)
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