Sir Anthony Hopkins as King lear

Ed Miller
September 28, 2018
In The Mix

Brit by Brit

Sir Anthony Hopkins — as the mad monarch — heads a cast flush with acting royalty in Amazon’s new King Lear.

Benji Wilson

Dotted around the set of Amazon's new production of King Lear is the unlikely sight of several bowls of Altoids.

Next to one is a note: "Lose a voice, lose the show."

Watching the filming at Hatfield House near London, you soon see what the mints are for: Sir Anthony Hopkins, playing Lear, is absolutely belting it out. It's the moment in Act Two of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy when Lear's daughters Goneril (Emma Thompson) and Regan (Emily Watson) finally reveal their treachery.

"Unnatural hags!" Hopkins raves at them, arms flailing. "I shall go mad!" His shouting seems to threaten the stained-glass windows. And then, just as Hopkins looks as if he may indeed implode, director Richard Eyre calls cut. The actor simmers down and shrinks back into his military greatcoat.

"I just need a peppermint, please," he says, as Eyre approaches to deliver a note. Lose his voice and you would certainly lose this show.

Hopkins's King Lear — a Playground Entertainment–BBC production launching on Amazon September 28 — started life in Playground's film The Dresser three years ago. In that story of one night at the theater, Hopkins played an aging actor performing the role of King Lear on stage.

"Filming The Dresser entailed three days on location at the Hackney Empire in London," Playground CEO Colin Callender says. "Anthony Hopkins hadn't been on stage in 30 years, and he walked on as Lear. He was extraordinary. After that, Richard Eyre, the director, and I spoke to him and said, 'Look, we should do Lear together — you're turning 80, the same age as the character, and you were extraordinary in those extracts.'"

It turned out that Hopkins had wanted to play Lear on film ever since he'd played the part at the Royal National Theatre in the '80s. And so a new Lear, with Eyre directing and adapting, began to take shape.

The scenes being filmed at Hatfield House's Marble Hall feature the recipients of no less than four Oscars and three Emmys. Aside from Sir Anthony, Dame Emma Thompson, in a short blonde crop, wanders around giving the crew chocolates, as Emily Watson searches for a cup of tea.

Christopher Eccleston (Oswald) grapples with a three-piece suit as Outlander's Tobias Menzies (Cornwall) jumps in place for a take. Everywhere you look, British acting grandees are playing Shakespearean royalty. Jim Broadbent is cast as the Duke of Gloucester — who, readers of the play will know, has his eyes gouged out in a scene that would fit right in on Game of Thrones.

"You'll have noticed that I can see today," he says. "Let me show you a picture, though." His phone reveals a shot of his face as a bloody mess. The trick to a good eye gouge, Broadbent adds, is mashed bananas. "Although it does make you look at fruit in a new way."

Downton Abbey's Jim Carter, meanwhile, says of his shaved head: "It's the first time I've had no hair on my head since I was four months old." He plays the Earl of Kent, Lear's loyal right-hand man, who is banished but returns in disguise to continue serving his master.

"That scene you've just watched," he says, "that's three pages of heavy dialogue, which they're going to bang through in one go. It's because everyone turned up knowing all of their lines. We had two weeks' proper rehearsal — that's unheard of."

Does Carter think a play written in 1608 has relevance today? "In these days of mad, despotic leaders," he says, "people will — ahem — find their own relevance to it! And then there's Tony [Hopkins]. He's incapable of doing anything less than 100 percent. I think he's loving it, being in the company of actors. He's a force of nature."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2018

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