It's a truism to say that Peter Brook's film King Lear is a masterpiece. But what is a masterpiece? Saying this of a work can be a way of not looking at it: the artwork becomes "timeless", a glazed exhibit in the museum of our cultural self-regard. It turns into a monument. When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down Behind them, Edmund listens. His face, marked by the blood and grime of battle, hardens to stone as he realises that such humility, humour and love, such trust, are lost to him forever. His order that Lear and Cordelia be killed is an act of visceral anguish and denial, a recognition of what he has murdered in himself and cannot bear to witness in others. And maybe that compassion might awaken within those who listen to Lear's speech. That we might "see better" is, after all, what art might legitimately offer us: a slight hope perhaps but, all the same, real and obdurate in a world which so often seeks to make us blind.
Thinking this over after watching Brook's film recently, it seems to me that when I say something is a masterpiece, I mean that its achievement is not that it rises into some lofty empyrean sphere where history no longer exists. It's a masterpiece because it does the opposite: because it makes a gesture so potent that it seems to draw all human experience into its gravity, because it reaches deep into individual and collective memory and hauls experience, naked and bloody, into the present.
When Paul Scofield lifts his dead daughter in his arms and howls in the desolate landscape of battle, for a moment he is every father who has stood in the ruins of his home, holding the corpse of his murdered child. When Alan Webb as Gloucester is roughly bound to a chair in his own house and stares at his captors in disbelief and growing fear, he is every prisoner staring at those who are about to become his torturers, pleading a claim of common humanity in the face of everything that denies it. When Lear confesses to Cordelia (Anne-Lise Gabold) that he has wronged her, it touches everything we know about forgiveness: the grief, the shame and the mutual love of the act.
Watching King Lear now is a different experience from watching it when it was made: our world has changed since 1971. But this film illustrates Ezra Pound's truism that art is "news that stays news". Perhaps what is most shocking about Brook's film - and it remains shocking - is how profoundly it galvanises our present. Gloucester is a prisoner in Abu Ghraib; Lear is a bereaved father in Chechnya or Lebanon. The loss, the grief, the cruelty and the love are all of our own time.
Brook's stripped-back adaptation, which uses all the avant garde film techniques of his day, draws from Jan Kott's insight that Lear, like Beckett's Endgame, reveals a world devoid of consolation, morality or universal justice. To underline the Beckettian connection, Brook uses two of Beckett's favourite actors: Patrick McGee, who plays the coolly sadistic Duke of Cornwall, and Jack MacGowan, who plays the Fool. Brook filmed it in the bleak landscape of a wintry Denmark, and portrayed Lear as a king of 10th century Britain, tyrant of a petty kingdom. The eye is undiverted by pomp and luxury: here both nature and man are brutal.
Brook gives us a complex Lear. He is a king whose madness is evident at the beginning of the story, a man whose fierce will is the only force that controls the madness that stirs inside him. The opening scene is a sweeping shot of the commoners who stand outside the door of the throne room, awaiting a fate that will be decided by capricious forces beyond their control.
What follows is a stark examination of the mechanisms of power. Its victims are not only those who are its objects, but those who brutalise themselves in their lust for it. Perhaps the scene that speaks most of this is near the end, when Brook includes Edmund (Ian Hogg) in the background of the shot as Lear speaks to Cordelia when, having lost their campaign against Regan and Goneril, they are led to prison:
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies...
Brook's film is a devastating realisation of the play: a pitiless examination of the cruelty and emptiness that lies at the heart of the lust for power. But it is by no means a nihilistic portrayal of humanity. It breaks your heart not because it unflinchingly reveals how cruel human beings can be - that would be merely horrifying - but because it reveals the fragile human possibility that is destroyed by this cruelty.
In King Lear, Shakespeare shows us humanity at its most abject, and - almost miraculously - a great beauty shines within its abjection. When Lear, at the height of his madness and humiliation, prays for those who "bide the pelting of this pitiless storm", lamenting their "loop'd and window'd raggedness", it is a plea to all of us to "show the heavens more just". As too often in this world, the heavens remain unjust: but within that prayer is the awakening of a true compassion that illuminates the value of all real justice.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
Behind them, Edmund listens. His face, marked by the blood and grime of battle, hardens to stone as he realises that such humility, humour and love, such trust, are lost to him forever. His order that Lear and Cordelia be killed is an act of visceral anguish and denial, a recognition of what he has murdered in himself and cannot bear to witness in others.
And maybe that compassion might awaken within those who listen to Lear's speech. That we might "see better" is, after all, what art might legitimately offer us: a slight hope perhaps but, all the same, real and obdurate in a world which so often seeks to make us blind.