Brook's Lear ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Brook's Lear

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.

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:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies...

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.

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.

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.


On Stage And Walls said...

You need to get hold of an article called "Lear Log" by Charles Marowitz, who was an assistant director on Brook's 1962 staging (also with Schofield, Webb, Worth, Cusack and others who went on to appear in the film).
The article goes into details about Brook's process, influences and how he suggested the actors grow thier characters. It's one of those 'Rosetta Stones" documents from that incredible time in the 1960's when theatre was changing.

It was published eventually in the book "Theatre at Work: Playwrites and productions in the Modern British Theatre" by Marowitz and Simon Trussler. [Methuen & Co, London 1967]

TimT said...

Mel Brooks' King Leer is interesting as well... Keep a close eye on the poster in this trailer.

Alison Croggon said...

Bardassa, I'll look out for that. It sounds like a must-have. And thanks Tim...but I could only watch a minute or so. It's such a travesty compared to Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder!

Anonymous said...

And how might one get one's hands on a copy, Ms. C?

Out of interest, have you ever seen any of Welles' Shakespeares? Or, for that matter, his own masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight?

TimT said...

I like 'em both.

On Stage And Walls said...

The Russian films of Hamlet, Lear and 12th Night are good but really hard to find.

The Welles' Macbeth, and Othello have been released on luvly DVD all restored with talking heads and extra features and biogs and all sortst of things.

The (Peter) Brook Lear is pretty special though. Did you get one of those Euro DVD copies? Mine has French and Spanish subtitles

Duncan Graham said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks for an insightful reminder of how great the play is, more specifically Peter Brook's treatment of it and the relevance to our times.

I have just come off assistant directing on Hamlet which was not so great as a production but it was a real treat to get to know the play a little better. And as a playwright it always delights and surprises me when I am reminded how often Shakespeare recycles lines through his plays - something that might seem blasphemous these days. However he does it with startling effect and always manages to get something new out of it.

The line in Lear is the one you quoted - 'when thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness'. It is mirrored at the end of the closet scene between Hamlet and his Mother, Gertrude - 'When you are desirous to be blest, I'll blessing beg of thee'. Both lines are equally heartbreaking and wonderfully placed; and both are followed by lines of seeming madness that act as harbingers of great beauty and innocence.

About the storm -

We know we can expect no compassion from the storm, lightning cannot discern between guilt from innocence, the just from the unjust, man from beast. It can only ever 'strike'. At this admission we are turned back toward our fellow humans, all the cruelty of our own nature starkly reflected.

Those that lust for power will also strike like lightning. Part of Lear's madness is to place a 'being' behind the storm. And so Shakespeare asks us to reflect upon our own actions.

It is Edgar, or Poor Tom, that is also doing this on the heath. He is blunt about himself as a man 'scar'd out of his good wits', who confesses that five fiends have been in him at once 'Obidicut, of lust; Hoberdidance, prince of dumbness; Mahu, of stealing; Modo, of murder;Flibbertigibbet, of mopping and mowing [making faces]'. He also says that he is 'false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand'. His rants read as a litany of human sins aimed squarely at himself. Finally, in a cry to purge his soul, and an act of self forgiveness he speaks to the storm - 'The worst returns to laughter. Welcome then, thou insubstantial air that I embrace: The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst owes nothing to thy blasts'.

As Lear rages blind and unconscious, Tom seeks conscious forgiveness for his nature that has led him, whether he deserves it or not, out into the storm. Edgar is a man who has seen too much before his time and seemingly redeemed through as a result. Here is the implicit power of 'the witness to the tragedy of others' who recognises it as latent in himself.

I bring it up as it has always seemed the much forgotten but perfect compliment to the themes that centre around Lear's madness.

May we all see better for the storms.

Duncan Graham

Anonymous said...

Speaking of films of Lear the recent(ish) film of Adrian Noble's National Theatre production of Lear confirms that the heavens are only just there. Kent and the end leaves to the call of his master with a cart carrying the bodies of Lear and his family; a most potent end. It was a production set in the Cottesloe theatre I believe and was a very intimate production. The film reflects this. Although it might not have the gravitas of Brook's Lear, it is a profound "subsequent performance" in Jonathon Miller's terms.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Duncan - thanks for that lovely meditation. Yes, Edgar is a wonderful counterpoint in the play and Brook's film. When the camera travels lovingly over his shuddering body in the storm scene, it's almost unbearable (you know he's not acting). And of course he's the one who says those telling lines at the end (a kind of motto for this blog, if you like!)

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Hi Scott - do you mean Richard Eyre's production, with Ian Holm? It certainly ends with Kent dragging off the bodies...If so, yes, I love that production - very different, as you say, from Brook's, but just as harrowing and moving. It's much more of a family drama, and Regan and Goneril are beautifully interpreted - as Daniel pointed out last night, it's like a Strindberg play, and he reckons Eyre's design is influenced by Bergman's productions of Strindberg, which used those red flats.

Anonymous said...

Alison, your thoughts on Brook's Lear reminded me also of Kurosawa's radical adaptation, Ran. I wrote something on the two a few years ago

...In contrast to this, even though their films are polar opposites in some respects, both Kurosawa and Brook revel in emphasising a bleak pessimism in their versions of Lear . It is an understanding of the text that is informed by the events of the early twentieth century and the resulting chill of the Cold War. Kurosawa’s relation to this context is of particular interest. Japanese culture is deeply linked to the past both in terms of the public realm of political history and in terms of the private realm of familial ancestry. One of the effects of the Second World War, often overlooked by commentators in the largely unscathed United States, was the devastating loss of this history (Galbraith 13). On a human level, generations of Japanese citizens were killed and, on a material level, civil records and documents, centuries-old buildings, paintings and thousands of motion pictures were all lost to the devastating bombing of the mid-1940s. It is in the wake of such all-consuming destruction that most of Kurosawa’s films were conceived. Not dissimilarly, Brook’s artistic vision grew out of the post-Great War milieu that incited poetry like that of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land , plays like Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and philosophical thought like that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s concepts of seriality and alterity are markers of a society where personal alienation is rife. The idea that we as communities are all linked together on a superficial level of purpose but without any expressive connections, like people waiting together for a bus, is present in Kurosawa’s films as much as it is in Brook’s. Indeed, as will be expanded on later, the alienation and ennui attendant to the rapidly modernising socio-economic structures of Europe find even greater depth in the context of Japanese culture, where conformism and communal existence are such fundamental aspects of the society’s framework. Hence, from this understanding of the historical context in which these adaptations were formed, two main thematic thrusts emerge. First, the imminence of apocalypse, through the unprecedented destructiveness of twentieth century warfare and the semi-automated absurdity of nuclear brinkmanship. Second, the crisis of individual identity apparent in an increasingly anti-humanist paradigm of economics and philosophical thought.

You can read the rest of what i wrote by clicking here.


Duncan Graham said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks for that quote. It sends a shiver up the spine to think how often we don't and yet how imperative it is. Certainly a motto for your site.

Alison Croggon said...

'Tis a pleasure to be sure to quote the Bard...

Thanks for those insights, Carl: Beckett's work, of course, comes from the same place. You force me to confess that I have NEVER seen a Kurosawa film. I am quite aware that this is a shameful admission. I have been meaning to remedy this for years - the shame is getting to a critical point - down to JB HiFi for me, I guess...