I have some memories of when Olivier recorded this King Lear. It was in 1983, and made especially for television. He was 75 or 76. His final Shakespeare role on film. It was well known that he had suffered decades of serious illness, including prostrate cancer. In 1975, he had nearly died of dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder, but struggled on for another decade or so, during which time he filmed this performance. It was clearly out of the question to perform the role on stage - his final performance on stage in a full role had been in 1974. Olivier was to die five years after this Lear.
I had admired Olivier when I was a teenager. I was a bit of a Shakespeare nut. In high school, I directed a 90 minute version of Hamlet in which I made the costumes, choreographed the fights, compiled the music and played the central role. Scenes not involving Hamlet were casually dispensed with, but naturally all the soliloquies remained intact. Later, at 19, I directed my first 'full' production, Macbeth. I admit here that I have in my illegal possession a fragment of Olivier's costume from his famous 1955 RSC Macbeth with Vivien Leigh.
But my memory of this television King Lear was that Olivier's performance was all a bit old fashioned. The thing that shocked me about watching this short clip all these years later was just how refreshingly modern Olivier now seems. Those around him - John Hurt, Diana Rigg, Dorothy Tutin, all top shelf - seem of another generation, but paradoxically a generation before him. They now seem the old fashioned ones, when you'd expect it to be the other way round. He seems to have defeated time.
Olivier's vocal range here is quite extraordinary, even pyrotechnical, but in a quite 'natural' way. There is a rhetorical grandness, to be sure, but he has managed to mould all this into genuine, unforced 'character'. Every syllable is clear and resonant, but never at the expense of expressed 'truth'. The kaleidoscopic variety of the performance provides poignant, human meaning. The physical choices match the vocal choices perfectly.
Why does Olivier suddenly feel so fresh?