Shakespeare’s King Lear (Omnibus) (E1) is stripped down to a fleet 70 minutes for this landmark live TV event, staged for the prestigious CBS series Omnibus in 1953. Peter Brook, then the phenom director of British stage, was brought in to stage this production for the cameras, Virgil Thompson wrote a minimalist underscore and Orson Welles (not even 40 years old at the time) was brought in as the aged Lear, his theatrical stature still of some name value even if his marquee was not. This presentation, which was (after the introduction by host Alistair Cooke) played straight through without commercials on its original broadcast, is so whittled down that it feels almost abstracted from the play. Brook prepared this version specifically for TV, chopping out subplots and cutting away on secondary characters to focus on the deterioration of Lear. So while the slow build of the sisters’ schemes comes on pretty fast here, the slide of Lear into madness takes on a momentum that is thrilling. Arnold Moss channels the great profile and theatrical dignity of John Barrymore as the Duke of Albany as he becomes appalled at the scheme he has been a part of and Micheal MacLiammoir (surely brought in with the blessing, if not the urging, of Welles, who had just cast him as Iago in his film of Othello) is a deft Poor Tom, who brings a little soul to the tragedy with his wit and his loyalty.
There’s a reason that this production has stood the test of time: while it suffers in many ways as a Shakespeare adaptation, it also shows the possibilities of TV to combine theater and cinema with the intimacy inherent in TV, and the expressionist solutions to production challenges of live TV and multiple sets needed for such a production. Brook moves the production from the formal throne rooms and banquet halls of the royal castles to more expressionist locales created with the limitations of TV in mind: a storm on the heath on a bare hill of artfully windswept grass against a simple black cloth, the rickety gears of an ancient windmill in which Lear and his loyal followers take refuge, the abstracted suggestions of tents on a sketch of a beachhead. The sets become increasingly alienated and despairing as they get more stylized and expressionistic and lighting adds to the dark night of the soul with slashes of illumination and beams of shadows falling across the cast. Andrew McCullough directs the television portion with a visual sensibility beyond anything that was being done in live TV at the time, anticipating the dynamic staging and effective use of extreme close-ups that directors like John Frankenheimer would bring to live TV.