While every inch may be a king, Ian Holm is, nevertheless, rather short. Almost everybody else in the Masterpiece Theatre production of King Lear (Sunday, October 11; 9 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) looks down on him -- except, of course, for Victoria Hamilton's Cordelia, about whom there's a Winona Ryder sort of waifishness. How much should this matter? After Olivier and Scofield and even, on television, Orson Welles, is a Napoleonic Lear imaginable? We also spy in Sir Ian's eye a not exactly Lear-like gleam, some fitful glee left over from Alien, in which he was an android, or The Sweet Hereafter, in which he was a lawyer, as if the terrible storm might just as easily have suggested an occasion for toboganning as for madness. In the daring event, on public television, he strips himself of "lendings" down to the altogether. I mean, Ian gets naked. It is a winning ploy. We are steadfast at his dreamy side thereafter, like the Earl of Kent (David Burke), to Dover and back in a white fog and a black howl.
Kenneth Tynan, who spoke of the play as a citadel, a pyramid, a labyrinth, and an Alp, said of the part that it must embody not only grief and rage but fire and flood and earth and air: "And to play the last unearthly act Lear must land, as it were, by parachute on the top of Parnassus. Mountaineering, however dogged, will not take him there." But mountaineering is Holm's habit, a kind of minimalism that another Kenneth, the cheeky Branagh, has characterized as "Anything you can do I can do less of." And to greater effect, I say: When he arrives at the last act, with so much meat on the little wheeled wagon, he's earned every one of his five "nevers." Never mind that Edmund, played by Finbar Lynch as a Tim Roth serial killer, is unworthy of breathing the same blue air, nor that I like Barbara Flynn so much I'm sorry she got stuck as the murderous and suicidal Goneril. Holm looks up over our shoulder, where we may presume Cordelia's starry soul resides, instead of down, where her body has been dumped with the rest of them.
This is where I should tell you what director Richard Eyre has scissored out of the sacred text to adapt his 1997 Royal National Theatre production into a two-and-a-half-hour TV movie. But that's not the sort of attention I was paying. If there is more lyricism than Peter Brook was willing to put up with, Lear remains the most pessimistic of Shakespeare's plays, and maybe the most hopeless of all great tragedies. Not much purgative pity and terror here; nor justice; nor mercy. There are too many villains, too much piling on of grotesqueries, and an excess of animal references (133 of them, to 64 different creatures, by Lionel Trilling's count). After so many zigs and zags -- "as a serpent moves," wrote Coleridge of Shakespeare, "which makes a fulcrum of its own body, and seems forever twisting and untwisting its own strength" -- just when things seem at last to be working out, the roof falls down, the floor caves in, and Cordelia is hanged. It's almost gratuitous, like Beckett. If, famously, we are to the gods as flies to wanton boys and they kill us for their sport, well, isn't the wanton playwright playing God?
And yet, as always in Shakespeare, once launched, we are plunged headlong into slambang, the crashing-about and the deep drop, through lunacy and desolation, in gloriously symphonic language. Who then cares whether the old man should have divided his kingdom in the first place, or if Cordelia's refusing to sign a loyalty oath was somehow prissy, or if we really need the clumsy and redundant Gloucester subplot, or if Edgar makes any sense? The mind at the end of its tether bares its teeth at all attachments and tears itself. In the bare ruined choirs of this production -- floorwalkers, gymnasts, and gangsters; medieval armor, World War I infantry helmets, Batman masks, turtlenecks, and Mao tunics; torchlight, shadows, and, as in Bergman's Seventh Seal, geometric chessboard space -- suffering holds all of us accountable. "Only the very greatest art," wrote Iris Murdoch somewhere, "invigorates without consoling."