Show artwork for Lear on screen

Lear on screen

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that ‘no man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear’. This status as one of the greatest tragedies of all time has drawn some of the world’s greatest actors, directors and creatives to the play; whether retelling the story faithfully, or adapting it to new and unexpected times and places. In a recent radio interview, our own Lear, Robyn Nevin, described the role as ‘top of the pile, absolutely the mountain-top’ in terms of the artistic challenges she’s faced in her career. So before our production of “Queen Lear”: begins, we thought we’d take a moment to look back over some of the great performances of Lear, and some unusual adaptations of the tale in 20th century film.


Orson Welles
Directed by Andrew McCullough and Peter Brook, 1953
This black and white version was shot with two cameras and virtually no sets on a small studio stage, and in order to condense the play for television, the Edgar-Edmund subplot was eliminated. Having already played Macbeth and Othello in previous films, Welles’ portrayal of the aging Lear is mesmerising.

Laurence Olivier
Directed by Michael Elliot, 1984
Possibly the most celebrated film version of the play, this production also features a memorable performance by John Hurt as Fool. Olivier won an Emmy Award for the performance – his last appearance in any Shakespeare production.

Ian Holm
Directed by Richard Eyre, 1998
An adaptation of the National Theatre production – for which Holm won the Olivier Award – this production featured minimal sets and casual costuming.

Ian McKellen
Directed by Trevor Nunn, 2009
The 2007 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company was so acclaimed it resulted in a world tour (which included performances at the Arts Centre Melbourne), and the eventual filming of a television production at England’s renowned Pinewood Studios.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1985
This adaptation set in feudal 14th Century Japan begins with Lord Hidetora dividing his kingdom among his three sons. The most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time, it was the acclaimed director’s last epic film. Costume Designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award for her costume designs, which included 1,400 uniforms and suits of armour, hand-made by master tailors over more than two years.

__King Lear: Fear and Loathing
Directed by Jean Luc-Godard, 1987
A meditation on art, language, and film making, Peter Sellers stars as William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth, a descendant of the bard bent on restoring his work. Featuring a cameo by Woody Allen as a film editor named Mr. Alien, this film was described by the Los Angeles Times as ‘a work of certified genius’.

*A Thousand Acres*
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1997
Adapted from the eponymous Pulitzer Prize winning-novel by Jane Smiley, this version of the Lear story sees an Iowa farmer, Larry Cook, decide to divide his thousand acre farm among his three daughters; Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. The cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Colin Firth, and Jessica Lang, who was nominated for the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes for her performance.

What performances or adaptations of King Lear have you enjoyed most? Share your favourites in the comments below.

“Queen Lear”: is playing at the MTC Theatre, Sumner from 7 July to 18 August




Published on 6 July 2012