Ian Holm's Superb in `King Lear'

Article excerpt

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

clothing.")

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

father's lunacy.

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. …