British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

King Lear

2008. GB. DVD (Region 2 PAL) and Blu-ray (Region B). 172 minutes + extras. Metrodome. £19.99

About the Author: Olwen Terris ws the Senior Researcher on the BUFVC Shakespeare Project and co-edited Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio: The Researcher’s Guide (BUFVC, 2009).

Many readers of this review will be aware that the impetus for the DVD came from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 staging directed by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellen as Lear. Those looking for a faithful recreation of that production will not find it here. The show has moved to Pinewood Studios and is re-designed and restaged. Directed for television by Nunn and Chris Hunt, it is shot in High Definition and produced by The Performance Company who specialise in stage-to-screen productions.

McKellen’s celebrated stage performances as Iago and Macbeth were also re-staged by Nunn for television and are more successful. The accomplishment may be due to the fact that both productions were conceived on a studio scale; the plays are domestic tragedies, about husbands and wives, jealousy and ambition – stories better suited to the experience of watching television in a private space. Critic Jan Kott in his influential book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1965) writes, `The theme of King Lear is the decay and fall of the world’. Watching this tragedy unfold in the familiarity and comfort of your own living room is an uneasy and unsatisfactory way to experience the play.

I felt while watching this DVD the need for an audience, a gathering of strangers around me to shape and share the cathartic experience. The viewing re-introduced questions of the suitability of Shakespeare on television, or at least the suitability of this play. The production is quiet, there is little noise beyond the sound of the actors’ voices, and I realised how much the subtle sounds of a theatre or cinema audience form part of the experience, the shrinking at the horror, the shared laughter, the often unbearable silence.

Filmed mainly in medium and close shots, the camera stays back observing and listening. The staging is a little too well mannered, the lines too politely delivered, the placing of the actors too perfect. The lighting is calculated, reminiscent of a Goya painting. An advantage of the restaging is that the recording ensures that all the characters are seen and heard clearly – democracy is at work. McKellen’s total command on the stage sometimes turned what should have been ensemble playing into a one-man show – but what a show. Here the camera focuses steadily on the supporting characters as they speak, encouraging you to watch and listen.

DVD extras includes a 25-minute interview with McKellen which is worth the price of the disc alone. Ever an eloquent exponent of his art, he speaks about the play, his interpretation of the role, and the different experiences of a seeing a performance in a theatre, in a cinema and on television.

McKellen comments that few will watch this DVD at one sitting – the play offers the raw material, the viewer is in control. Scene selection allows the student or general viewer to locate and review any scene in any order they wish. It will also allow students to compare McKellen’s performance with that of Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier and Michael Hordern – all conceived or re-staged for television and currently available on DVD. This DVD of King Lear is a fine way to study the play.

For more information abotu this production, including clips and interviews, visit the PBS Great Performance website at:


Olwen Terris


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