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King Lear: Broadway Theatre Archive

Is Shakespeare's harrowing, intense tragedy King Lear the greatest dramatic work ever created anywhere by anyone on the planet? Could be. Certainly the tale — old even when the mature, peak-of-his-career Shakespeare penned his version around 1605 — of an aging father/monarch's tragic descent into lunacy never seems to deplete its power and appeal. Shakespeare displayed a knack for tapping into complex universal truths that serve as cultural Rorschach shapes across centuries and societies. There are things rooted in this play's rich loam and strata — pride, power, deceit, honor, brutal cruelty, bald-faced evil, family strife, filial love, heartbreak, loyalty, upturned identities, chaos in the heavens and on earth...— that speak directly to our bones. Since the curtain rose on the 20th century, more than a dozen Lears have called down the thunder on screen. The first on record flickered up in 1909. Since then actors and directors have set the play on the battlefields of feudal Japan, in post-Chernobyl Russia, at a Yiddish seder, and on the cornfields of Iowa. We've seen traditional Lears, existential Lears, a Soviet Christian Marxist Lear, and a punk-apocalyptic Lear. Orson Welles was a fine screen king, and at 75 Laurence Olivier won the International and Primetime Emmy awards in a 1984 TV production co-starring Diana Rigg, John Hurt, and Stonehenge.

More so even than Hamlet, King Lear is so infamously demanding that only the surest, most experienced and seasoned actors should dare attempt it. So it's no surprise that James Earl Jones, one of our contemporary greats who's far more than just the voice of Darth Vader, rose to the challenge and delivered a compelling incarnation of the maddened monarch. And it's doubly fortunate that Jones' performance is preserved in one of the finest releases from Broadway Theatre Archive. This 1974 PBS Great Performances presentation is one people still talk about — the New York Shakespeare Festival production filmed as it was happening on Joseph Papp's outdoor stage in Manhattan's Central Park with a live audience during a perfect summer night. A strong, leonine warrior king, Jones' Lear embodies an interpretation vibrantly different from the frail, addled old man commonly associated with the character. Plus, the outstanding supporting cast showcases Raul Julia as the seductive villain Edmund, Rene Auberjonois as Edgar/Tom o' Bedlam, Rosalind Cash as treacherous Goneril, Lee Chamberlain's loving and steadfast Cordelia, Douglass Watson as loyal Kent, and Tom Aldredge (The Sopranos) as the Fool, Lear's voice of observant wisdom. (The only weak link is, oddly, Paul Sorvino's lackluster Gloucester.) Here's a no-fripperies, full-speed-ahead King Lear that's accessible, exciting, haunting, moving, and crowd-pleasing in ways that merely reading the play in English class will never achieve.

This three-hour live performance was specially tailored to be filmed for broadcast television. Host Hal Holbrook, as he did for all the Great Performances "Theater in America" series, opens with an historical and contextual preamble. Then we're at the amphitheater as the audience arrives, taken backstage to see cast and crew preparing, and finally on stage for Joseph Papp's welcoming introduction. While filming the performance, director Edwin Sherin maintained the essential theatrical presence of the event while also crafting superb television. The three cameras move about the minimalist sets in fluid choreography, sometimes visible yet never interfering. The audience's presence is a vital part of this production. The crowd's applause and laughter (Shakespeare punctuated even his darkest tragedies with expert humor) are real and spontaneous, and we sense that we're a portion of that audience invited forward to float disembodied amid Jones, Julia, and the others at work (when Gloucester's eyes are knifed out we get the best view).

The outdoor stage adds to the ambience. Having New York City so visibly and aurally close feels exactly right. This Lear occupies three worlds — Shakespeare's stage, Lear's pre-Christian Britain, and modern Manhattan. It needs all three just for room to strut its stuff. This is theater as it's supposed to be — artistically powerful, technically fine-tuned, and world-making in scope yet infused with the intimacy that only a live performance can achieve.

*          *          *

The Broadway Theatre Archive and Image Entertainment do themselves proud again with a clean, digitally remastered recording that presents a '70s television print as well as modern home video allows. Naturally the source print can't bring the definition, richness of color, or audio range that new DVD technology can support, and the DVD authoring accentuates any telltale film or video artifacts inherent in the technology that originated the print. So expect some halos and blooming from bright light sources. Color fidelity is good but not rock solid. The Dolby Digital monaural audio is restricted to the center channel, though you can't ask for better sound given that limitation. Dialogue is strong and clear, and Charles Gross' original musical score comes through fine. To complain about technical limitations here would be like griping about the lack of cup holders in a vintage Rolls Royce. This recording is a fine piece of work, and the James Earl Jones Lear will never look or sound better.

Complementing other releases in the expanding BTA series, this disc also comes with an informative slipsheet, selected stage/screen credits (Jones, Julia, Cash, Sorvino, and Auberjonois), and a series-matching keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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