Anthony Hopkins takes on King Lear again

Anthony Hopkins
Anthony Hopkins

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 (above) said.

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 is now on Amazon Prime Video.

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.

Eyre has placed his Lear in a contemporary Britain where the king is a military dictator.

And Hopkins' 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 is a bit of a shock to see 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 Hopkins took on the challenging part in a 1986 production at London's National Theatre, directed by David Hare.

"It was a terrific production, but I soon realised I wasn't going to hit the mark," Hopkins said from his home in Malibu, California, 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 e-mail after the interview, 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 baulked 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".

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, 1999, Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus) and has returned to television in recent years, starring in the HBO series Westworld.

Hopkins did concede that he had occasionally thought about tackling Lear again.

When 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 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 Callender, whose company Playground has produced King Lear with Sonia Friedman Productions and Lemaise Pictures.

"It was extraordinary and very moving. I went to Richard and said, 'Would you do it?'"

Eyre had directed the play in 1997 and was hesitant about revisiting familiar territory, but he was finally persuaded by the chance to direct Hopkins.

For 18 months before the rehearsal and filming period began, he said he received and replied to almost daily e-mails from Hopkins about the role.

Although he is known for his intense preparation for his roles, 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 Thompson, who plays Goneril.

These themes, she said, centred 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".

Thompson, who has starred alongside Hopkins before, in Howards End (1992) and The Remains Of The Day (1993), 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."

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 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 appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2018, with the headline 'Anthony Hopkins takes on King Lear again'. Subscribe