Some film goers remember Ian Holm best as Ash, the nefarious
android in the horror classic Alien. On pay cable, the
actor currently appears as a plucky priest out to help save
the world in the offbeat sci-fi jaunt The Fifth Element.
But the British thespian who bears a "Sir" in front of his name
has other, considerably more prestigious roots. And with
Sunday's launch of this season's Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, he
shines in one of the most acclaimed performances on the London
stage in recent years.
King Lear (9 p.m., PBS) is a restaging of the Royal National
Theatre production that earned Holm the 1998 Olivier Award for
Best Actor. In portraying the mad and majestic monarch of
William Shakespeare's drama, he adds to a career that began with
a part as spear carrier in a 1954 Royal Shakespeare Company play
and has continued through more than 40 films, including Chariots
of Fire, Henry V and The Madness of King George.
Based on an ancient British folk tale about an aging king who
divides his kingdom among his three daughters, King Lear has at
its center a capricious, tyrannical, impossible and ultimately
lovable human being, according to Holm. He is like our
grandfathers. And he goes through an extraordinary journey in
and out of madness.
One of Holm's interpretations of the part is to be the first in
history to strip naked during King Lear's mental decline.
Handled tastefully in the TV version, the scene is part of the
metaphor of a man who goes from king to ordinary man.
"It wasn't for very long, anyway," Holm told critics during
this summer's press tour. "Somebody comes up and puts an old
sack over me. I think it adds to the play." (By the way,
Shakespeare's stage direction states, "Lear tears off his
King Lear was directed by Sir Richard Eyre, who stepped down
last year after 10 years as director of Britain's Royal National
Theatre. In adapting the play for TV, he increased the intimacy
with use of close-ups, making it more of a domestic tragedy.
Some of the text had to be cut, but the great arias are intact,
including "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks." On TV, this
comes with real rain and a wind machine.
Eyre said for many years he refused to direct King Lear, saying
he wasn't ready for it. It wasn't until both his parents died
that he was able to be more objective about being a father and a
child. "I've always been drawn to the play because it's about a
family and it's about a highly dysfunctional family, and they
all end up dead. And I wanted to do it in a very intimate way."
Unlike directing for theater, directing for TV means selecting
the audience's point of view. Eyre said a prime example of that
takes place in the first scene of the play, which is King Lear's
break with his most beloved daughter, Cordelia, who refuses to
play the game of "I love you best." Much of the scene plays off
Cordelia's (Victoria Hamilton) face and her reaction to her
When Cordelia refuses to cooperate and is banished, a set of
catastrophes is set in motion that leads to Lear's mental
collapse in a celebrated storm scene. A parallel plot around
Lear's trusted adviser, the Earl of Gloucester (Timothy West)
also ends tragically. …