Shakespeare’s King Lear is a classic incarnation of the wildman archetype (previously discussed by Erich Kuersten here and here). Lear’s problem, leading to tragedy, is not only his age – and what seems to be encroaching senility or dementia – but the fact that throughout the height of his power no one apparently ever dared to tell him, “No.”
I have seen and heard numerous performances of Lear , a Shakespeare in the Park presentation featuring James Earl Jones as Lear and Raul Julia as Edmund, an abbreviated ’50s TV production starring a wheelchair-confined Orson Welles, another television production starring a past-his-prime Laurence Olivier as Lear and a memorable Diana Rigg as Regan, yet another television production starring the underrated Michael Hordern, an avant-garde stage production directed by Robert Wilson (like a three-ring circus in slow motion), and a Jean-Luc Godard film adaptation featuring one Lear played by Norman Mailer and another by Burgess Meredith (a mafia godfather named “Don Learo”) with Molly Ringwald as his Cordelia.
Many interpretations, all of them fascinating in their way, but the only one who really nailed it, as far as I’m concerned, was the late Paul Scofield – not in Peter Brook’s spare Bergmanesque film version (though that may be the best of the productions I’ve mentioned so far), but in an audio version directed by Howard Sackler (author of The Great White Hope) and released on long-playing records. Where Peter Brook’s 1971 film was intentionally low-key and underplayed, Sackler’s audio version lets the Shakespearean language soar. And who better to speak that language than Mr. Scofield with his keen intelligence and drier-than-autumn-leaves voice?
The excellence of the Sackler/Scofield audio Lear makes me wonder if film – or even theater – is the ideal medium for Shakespeare. Not that there haven’t been many fine examples of Shakespeare on film (Julie Taymor’s Titus, Ian McKellan’s Richard III, Olivier’s Hamlet, all of Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations), but in a first-rate audio performance one gets Shakespeare’s language – and most importantly, his imagery – undiluted by someone else’s visualizations.
Similarly, Paul Scofield was never less than effective on film, but given that the essence of his art lay in his voice, I suspect his ideal medium might have been radio drama. [ADDENDUM: Per the U.K. Guardian obituary, it was a medium Scofield loved and “where he did some of his very greatest work.”]
Let us take a moment to mourn the passing of both of them.