Breaking News

Anthony Hopkins Returns to ‘King Lear,’ Finally Up to the Challenge

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

SAMPHIRE HOE, England — High above the sea, on the white cliffs of Dover, soldiers hoisted equipment and secured tents in what looked like a military encampment. A man appeared at the edge of a tent, his white hair close-cropped, his grizzled face shadowed by a ragged beard. “Shall we get on with it?” Anthony Hopkins said.

Mr. Hopkins, 80, has been getting on with the business of acting for almost 60 years. And on a chilly day last November, he was about to shoot his final scene as King Lear in the new made-for-television film of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Friday.

This “King Lear” — a production from the BBC and Amazon and co-starring Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Florence Pugh and Andrew Scott — is directed by Richard Eyre, who also adapted the text, shrinking a play that usually runs three hours or more into an action-driven 115 minutes. Mr. Eyre has placed his Lear in a contemporary Britain where the king is a military dictator. Viewers are first greeted with sweeping views of the glass-and-steel skyscrapers and bridges of the London skyline, before Mr. Eyre’s camera alights on the Tower of London, a symbol of military might since William the Conqueror erected fortifications on the site in 1066.

And Mr. Hopkins’s Lear is at first every inch the tyrant; a blunt, gruff, arrogant man used to obedience and obeisance, incapable of reflection or empathy. Or as he put it pithily between takes, “a punchy old guy.”

It’s a bit of a shock to see Mr. Hopkins playing Lear at all; after all, he had forsworn the stage (and Shakespeare, for the most part) nearly 30 years ago. But time, along with some family memories and the proliferation of well-funded prestige TV, has spurred him to tackle the role once again.

A much younger Mr. Hopkins took on the challenging part in a 1986 production at London’s National Theater, directed by David Hare. “It was a terrific production, but I soon realized I wasn’t going to hit the mark,” Mr. Hopkins said in a telephone interview from his home in Malibu, Calif., at the end of August. “It’s not enough just to have muscular, lumpen energy to play Lear. Or any part.”

Soon after Lear, he played Antony to Judi Dench’s Cleopatra. “I thought at that point: These are proper actors who can speak verse. I’m not in their league. I knew I was in the wrong world.”

In an email after the interview, Mr. Hopkins offered further ruminations on the decision to leave the stage, which he did in 1989. “I think there was and still is, probably, something in me that balked against the dark ‘seriousness’ of everything to do with acting,” he wrote. He added that a “problem of my own creation was a feeling of alienation, not being up to the mark, not educated — all that mishmash of insecurity.”

Mr. Hopkins is best known for his film roles, most indelibly his Oscar-winning turn as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” from 1991. He has made dozens of movies since (including “Titus,” Julie Taymor’s adaptation of “Titus Andronicus”) and has returned to television in recent years, starring in the HBO series “Westworld.”

Mr. Hopkins did concede that he had occasionally thought about tacking Lear again. When the producer Colin Callender approached him three years ago about the role of the grand British actor Sir in a television production of Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser,” directed by Mr. Eyre, he was attracted by the opportunity to perform parts of “Lear” as a play within the play.

“When we filmed those scenes, it was the first time in around 30 years that Tony had been on a stage,” said Mr. Callender, whose company Playground has produced “King Lear” with Sonia Friedman Productions and Lemaise Pictures Limited. “It was extraordinary and very moving. I went to Richard and said, ‘Would you do it?’”

Mr. Eyre had directed the play in 1997 and was hesitant about revisiting familiar territory, but he was finally persuaded by the chance to direct Mr. Hopkins. For 18 months before the rehearsal and filming period began, he said he received and replied to almost daily emails from Mr. Hopkins about the role.

“Richard may have got bored of my notes, but I had total recall of what I did and what I did misguidedly,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Now I think Lear is afraid of the feminine — in himself and in his daughters. I think he treated Cordelia like a tomboy, a chip off the old block, and when she rejects him, I think it releases something in him. He rampages through the rest of the play until he ends up on skid row, a tramp wheeling a shopping trolley.” (Mr. Callender said that several people mistook Mr. Hopkins for a homeless man during the filming of these scenes.)

Mr. Hopkins added that he had drawn from memories of his father and grandfather. “They were very instrumental in my life — very tough men, old school: Pull yourself together, man up, nothing touchy-feely,” he said gruffly. “My father was a baker, very rough around the edges but with a great lust for life. My Lear feels very much like him, particularly in the storm scene. I laugh at the storm, laugh at the elements and in the face of faith. And Richard encouraged me to follow my instincts and go over the top.”

Although he is known for his intense preparation for his roles, Mr. Hopkins is matter of fact about his methods. “The text is like a cobbled street,” he said. “I pull the stones out, see what’s underneath and how they connect, then replace them. It’s not complicated. When I hear people talking on television about ‘process,’ I think, shut up and get on with it.”

A two-week rehearsal period allowed the cast to bond and “examine the themes that Richard wanted to draw out,” said Ms. Thompson, who plays Goneril. These themes, she said, centered on the notion “that cruelty in parenting undoes the family but also the state; that a state without love and wise leadership is a nihilistic, baleful place.”

Ms. Thompson, who has starred alongside Mr. Hopkins before, in “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” said that the entire company of actors felt “privileged to witness him tackle the part.”

“There was this sense of something ultimate, an apogee of some kind,” she added. “Tony is one of our greatest actors, and here he was, playing one of the greatest roles ever written.”

Mr. Hopkins brushed aside these accolades. “You have to be very careful about the narcissism of the lead actor,” he said. “What I liked about Richard’s ‘Lear’ was the lack of lack of ceremony, no kowtowing and bowing. I liked the raw, brutal approach; come in, speak your lines and get off.”

He added: “I was trying too hard the first time. Now I have more experience, and I wanted to prove I had the stamina and the chutzpah. As Goethe said, every old man knows what Lear is about.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page AR15 of the New York edition with the headline: Finally Ready to Take On ‘King Lear’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source link

No comments