Award-winning director Richard Eyre discusses his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear in a new BBC and Amazon film starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Andrew Scott and Jim Carter.
There can be few directors alive today more familiar with William Shakespeare’s works than Sir Richard Eyre.
A multi-award-winning director of film, television, theatre and even opera, Eyre has been behind high-profile stage productions of Hamlet and Richard III and also helmed TV versions of Henry IV: Part One and Henry IV: Part Two for the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, a five-film adaptation of multiple Shakespeare plays.
His most celebrated Shakespearean work to date, however, is surely his 1998 stage version of King Lear, starring Ian Holm. The production earned Olivier Awards for both Holm and Eyre, and now the director will be hoping for similar acclaim for his screen version of the tragedy, which airs on BBC2 in the UK next week and launches later on Amazon, which co-financed the film.
Leading the cast this time around is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lear, who slowly descends into madness after disposing of his kingdom among his daughters.
The talent-laden ensemble also includes Emma Thompson, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh as Lear’s daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively; Jim Broadbent as the Earl of Gloucester, whose sons Edgar and Edmund are played by Andrew Scott and John Macmillan; and Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as the Earl of Kent.
The first thing viewers tuning in at 21.30 on Monday will notice is the one-off film’s decidedly un-Shakespearean setting, opening as it does with an establishing shot of present-day London with 95-storey skyscraper The Shard front and centre. However, the Bard’s unmistakable dialogue from the 1605-penned play remains intact.
Explaining the decision behind the modern setting, Eyre says: “It’s unusual for a Shakespeare play – it’s set in a pre-Christian era… the period is probably druidic. And if you ask, ‘How am I going to make it look?’, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want it to look like druids in sheets at Stonehenge.’
“I decided I wanted to set it in a contemporary world. In some ways, the buildings are playing off against the language.”
As for why he was keen to return to King Lear 20 years after his theatre version, Eyre’s reasoning is straightforward: “I think it’s the best play ever written, and I’ve felt that for about 35 years.
“This is a story about two fathers, one with three daughters, one with two sons. It’s a play about family, amplified by being about the state, so the stakes are that much higher. None of its truths are going to change for hundreds of years.”
Bringing such a revered and challenging property to the screen was always going to demand a cast with serious acting chops, and producer Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment says he was delighted with the line-up put together for the show. “The ability to bring a play like this to the screen enables us to assemble a cast that you would never ever see on stage together, and it’s a testament to Richard that we were able to put together such an extraordinary ensemble,” he says.
“Part of the joy of seeing something like this on screen is that every role comes to life in the most extraordinary way; a way that doesn’t always happen on stage because you don’t get actors of this calibre playing all these secondary and tertiary roles.”
The choice of Hopkins as Lear, meanwhile, was a no-brainer – but that’s not to say it was simple to secure his services. The process can be traced back to when Eyre directed the actor in the 2015 BBC/Starz film version of Ronald Harwood play The Dresser, which also starred Ian McKellen. The story is set in the backstage area of a production of King Lear, which led to the pair discussing the Shakespeare play.
“I had directed King Lear, Tony had been in King Lear and we talked rather facetiously about how we’d make a film of King Lear one day,” Eyre says. Then, after Callender came to him with the project, it was the director’s wife who pushed him to move ahead, telling him: “You just have to do this with Tony Hopkins.”
Multiple emails back and forth between actor and director followed, with Hopkins busy with projects such as HBO drama Westworld. The pair talked “more or less everything King Lear” before, two years later, rehearsals finally began – and Hopkins didn’t disappoint.
“He’s the most extraordinary, eccentric, lovable, bizarre man,” Eyre says of the Silence of the Lambs star. “He generates a nuclear energy on set, benign energy.”
The actor’s performance as an increasingly bewildered and dishevelled Lear was apparently so convincing that he was mistaken for a homeless person during filming on location in the UK town of Stevenage. “A woman in a mobility scooter scooted up to Tony and said, ‘You know, there’s a hostel for the homeless up the road, so you might want to take your shopping trolley down there,’” Eyre recalls.
For Thompson, meanwhile, performing in the film led to a reappraisal of her own interpretation of the play, which she also describes as her favourite. As Goneril, who along with her equally devious sister Regan has long been perceived as one of the major villains of King Lear, the actor plays a character who schemes against her ailing father. But Thompson says: “This is the only production of King Lear I’ve ever seen in which you actually sometimes sympathise more with the children, and I think that’s an amazing insight into the play. I’d never been able to see that, so I’m very grateful.”
Describing working with Hopkins for a third time – the pair previously starred in The Remains of the Day and Howards End – as “joyful,” the Oscar winner adds: “It’s great to play all that rage. It’s really fun, I loved it. Anthony and I got very violent in one scene – it was really enjoyable!”
Andrew Scott was also thrilled to act alongside Hopkins. The Sherlock star, nominated for an Olivier Award for his stage portrayal of Hamlet last year, plays Edgar, who is betrayed by his malevolent and bitter half-brother Edmund. “What I found so extraordinary about Tony is how ferocious and alive he is about being an actor,” he says. “Every day he’d come in and if you asked him how he slept, he’d say, ‘Fuck sleep, I don’t sleep!’”
As for the film itself, which is produced by Playground and Sonia Friedman Productions in association with Lemaise Pictures, Scott notes: “A lot of it is about the vulnerability of our leaders. This is something that was written 400 years ago, but we rely on human beings to lead us and we have to see that they are human beings.”
Rejecting the suggestion that Shakespeare on TV might lack broad appeal, he says: “Human psychology has not changed, and I hate the idea that this kind of drama is only for a select few, because that means that only a select few are seeing it.”
Co-star Jim Carter, best known for playing butler Mr Carson in Downton Abbey, concurs, believing it’s crucial that Shakespeare’s works continue to be adapted for the small screen. “Having it in people’s living rooms, bringing it to people at home, rather than people having to make the effort to go out and see it, is hugely important,” he says of the drama, which is distributed internationally by Great Point Media.
“For this to come to people where they really feel things much more deeply – in their own home – is fantastic. Thank you BBC.”
But how can young people, in particular, be expected to connect with something written so long ago? Scott might have the answer. “Shakespeare is a little bit like rap,” he asserts. “The majority of the audience who are watching on television will go, ‘I don’t understand that, but I understand the music of it.’ There are still certain things that I don’t understand about it, but I understand the music and I understand the feeling.”