Great Performances: King Lear

Wed, 03/25/2009 - 8:00pm
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Pictured: Ian McKellen as King Lear

Photo Credit: Simon Farrell

Few actors could follow up roles like Magneto in X-Men and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy with King Lear. But then very few actors are like Ian McKellen. Arguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation (Richard III, Macbeth, Iago), he re-creates his recent stage performance of the tragic monarch in a special television adaptation with Great Performances: King Lear, airing Wednesday, March 25 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

William Shakespeare’s unrelenting tragedy King Lear is widely considered one of the playwright’s most enduring and haunting works for the stage. The challenge of playing its title role has been taken on by some of the greatest actors of our time — Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ian Holm, and James Earl Jones, to name only a few. The play opens with Lear’s proposal to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, according to how much each can profess her love for him, spiraling forward to dramatize the king’s deception, betrayal, and eventual descent into madness.

Directed by Trevor Nunn, the telecast includes nearly all the original cast members of the sold-out RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) production that premiered in Stratford-Upon-Avon in April 2007 and toured internationally before concluding on London’s West End in January 2008.

“If I wanted to hang the whole performance on one line,” the actor said recently, “it would be when King Lear is crying out, ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ That is the question that still puzzles psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors and anyone with feeling about life. Where does our ill behavior come from? Are we born with it? Is it madness? What is it?”

Joining the two-time Oscar nominee (Gods and Monsters, Lord of the Rings) are Romola Garai (Atonement), Frances Barber and Monica Dolan as his daughters, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan, respectively; William Gaunt as his longtime ally Gloucester; Ben Meyjes as Gloucester’s rejected son Edgar; Philip Winchester as Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund; and Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s Fool.

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