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'King Lear' in All His Mad Glory

TV review: Ian Holm's performance is every inch the king.


So much for family values.

Shakespeare's most honored tragedy is essentially about two dads who screw up. One is an aging British monarch, the other his friend, the Earl of Gloucester. Both have good and bad offspring and make horrific blunders when choosing which siblings to trust.

This plot and paralleling subplot drive "King Lear," which is Sunday's ultra-bravissimo opener for another "Masterpiece Theatre" season. Fortunately for PBS viewers, the Lear they're getting is not just any old king on a mad, goofy, self-crippling binge but Ian Holm's commanding dynamo of a Lear in a highly praised Royal National Theatre production that has been stunningly restaged for television under the direction of Richard Eyre.

Holm's Lear in the 1997 London stage version earned him an Olivier award, England's equivalent of a Tony. And his heroic performance here, that white-bearded face a rainbow of emotions, will surely head this season's highlight reel of TV royals. As will the superb work of his supporting players, including Timothy West as the blinded Gloucester, his eyes turned to jelly, and Barbara Flynn and Amanda Redman as Lear's pair of loathsome older daughters.

Eyre deploys his close-ups with care but not stingily. As a result, this is much less a traditional stage rendering than a TV production of a play that moves its audience beyond front row center to a position of even greater visual intimacy with the actors as they play out this tragedy on austere sets colored black, gray and muddy red. When Lear angrily tells his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Victoria Hamilton), "Better thou hadst not been born, than not to have pleased me better," you can witness the seething in his eyes and then, as she responds, the deep hurt in hers.

Shakespeare's text has been trimmed for TV, but there's no shrinkage in the play's dance of language or essential ingredients, with the foolish, hot-tempered old king's demented eruption beginning almost immediately.

Lear has decided to split his kingdom among his three daughters, the sizes of their dowries depending on how each expresses her affection for him. Goneril (Flynn) and Regan (Redman) please Lear by being as effusive with their flattery as they are insincere.

But when his favorite and only truly loving daughter, Cordelia, tells him her feeling for him is in her heart, not her mouth, the overreacting king rages wildly and cuts her off without a dowry. He banishes her and gives her share to her older sisters, then also banishes his loyal friend, the Duke of Kent (David Burke), for taking Cordelia's side.

All of which he'll soon regret when, feeble and homeless, he learns just how loving his older daughters are as first one, then the other, rejects, humiliates and abuses him. As will the equally foolish Gloucester later regret turning against his honest son, Edgar (Paul Rhys), and siding with his villainous illegitimate son, Edmund (Finbar Lynch), whose Machiavellian scheming spans nearly the entire play.

Lear is never more pitiful than when, a shell of his once-formidable self and consumed by delusions and mad chatterings, he wanders in a downpour with his loyal court fool (Michael Bryant), as much at the mercy of the elements as of Goneril and Regan. During this famous thunderstorm sequence that Eyre stages masterfully, Lear at one point tears off his clothes (yes, Holm is briefly nude, but discreetly so).

One calamity follows another, resulting in a slab of bodies, as the shadows of his mistakes and misdeeds close in on Lear until it's night. If you're up for a fine night of television, come hither.

* "King Lear" airs on "Masterpiece Theatre" at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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