>> King Lear (The Historic Omnibus Production) (2010)

Show: King Lear: Omnibus

Genre: Drama

Starring: Orson Welles, Alan Badel, Beatrice Straight, Bramwell Fletcher, Scott Forbes

Studio: E1 Entertainment

Runtime: 78 minutes

Release Date: February 9, 2010

Format: DVD

Discs: 1

Rating: 3.75 (out of 4.00)

Grade: B+

The show almost didn't go on.

The network and sponsors insisted there be two commercial breaks while Peter Brooks refused to stage the performance with any. Only when the sponsors were convinced they would receive tremendous publicity did they back down.

E1 Entertainment continues its roll-out of DVDs highlighting the early television prestige program Omnibus with the release of this episode featuring William Shakespeare's King Lear.  Orson Welles, in his American television debut, plays the tragic king in an abridged live production staged by Peter Brooks.  Brooks pared the play to a television-friendly 78 minutes by cutting out all subplots to focus solely on Lear’s downfall.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the play opens with an aged King Lear who is ready to retire from the throne of England and divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.  To determine who would get the largest share, Lear asks each daughter to express her love for him.  Goneril and Regan both give flowery, over-the-top protestations of love and devotion which please the vain king while Cordelia speaks honestly and matter-of-factly, leading Lear to disinherit her and divide his estate equally between Goneril and Regan.  Cordelia marries the King of France and moves away while Lear announces he will split his time between the homes of Goneril and Regan.   King Lear is as bleak a tragedy as Shakespeare created and things go from bad to worse for Lear and, eventually, nearly everyone else.

Omnibus host Alistair Cooke mentions in his introduction that it was easy to excise the subplots from King Lear, and that may well be, but the play does suffer for it.  First, King Lear is a sprawling epic of a play with depth and shading that are lost in this condensed version.  Secondly, subplots not only give the principal actors a chance to rest between scenes, they give the audience a chance to miss the principal actors.  Here, it is Orson Welles on stage for virtually the entire production, and while he delivers a huge, masterful performance filled with rage and pain, the play feels almost suffocated.  The set is cramped and there is a great deal of gloom inherent to King Lear, which is magnified by the extra shadows caused by black and white film. Add to that the heavy, severe make-up worn by Welles as he looms out at the viewing audience from the darkness and the effect is, at the very least, imposing.  On a lighter note, be sure to watch Welles’s mustache slip during the storm scene.  One of the great things about a live performance is catching the gaffes, and there are several to be found here.

While King Lear will never be my favorite play, it is an excellent and important one, and even stripped down, Brooks’s Omnibus production is very good with time well-spent watching Welles in full fury.  It’s amazing that this aired, without commercial interruption, on network television to a very large audience and to excellent critical reception.  I wish television did more (any) of this now and I’m thrilled that historic gems like this are being released.

The extras are spectacular for any Shakespeare buff.  There is a five minute preview of this King Lear from the previous installment of Omnibus and a ten minute featurette “Dr. Frank Baxter on the Globe Theater,” which has the “Our Friend, the Atom” professor discuss the history of Shakespeare’s famous theater.  There is also an Omnibus episode where drama critic Walter Kerr discusses the staging of Shakespeare’s plays, and (my favorite) an Omnibus episode that includes a live remote to the 1954 Yale Shakespeare festival, including portions of a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Even the DVD booklet is packed with good information.  Peter Brooks provides commentary on mounting the production and Welles biographer (and noted actor) Simon Callow has an essay about how Welles ended up on Omnibus and what it meant for him.  Photos from the performance are also included.  The video and sound are both very good, surprisingly clear given the original episode ran in 1953, and King Lear is shown in full screen.


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