Lear's Shadow: 'Unaccommodated' Shakespearean appropriation

In a year in which acting heavyweights Anthony Sher, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins are set to give us a trio of ‘superstar’ Lears on stage and screen, it’s refreshing also to have the chance to experience films like Lear’s Shadow, an independently made two-hander willing to approach King Lear with both boldness and humility. Brian Elerding’s film highlights the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s tragic play not by making that goal its explicit purpose, but by taking Lear’s relevance as an accepted truth and applying that truth to tragic circumstances extraordinary in their impact yet ordinary in their potential occurrence.

‘You know, I’ve always wished that I could just do the main plot’, says Jack (Fred Cross) at a point soon after running through dialogue from 1.1 of Lear in a rehearsal room with Stephen (David Blue), an actor in the theatre company of which Jack is the director. From this point on in Lear’s Shadow, that’s exactly what the two men do, piecing together a ‘Lear-only Lear’ as they describe it by running through a handful of scenes from the play focused on the titular king. From a filmmaking perspective, this decision by writer and director Elerding also makes pragmatic sense: in a low-budget production such as this, just over an hour in length and with only two characters on screen for most of that time, attempting to cover every plot element of Lear would likely have set the film up to disappoint if not fail altogether.

Jack justifies his wish by expressing a desire to gain greater understanding of Lear as a character, feeling that the play’s subplot prevents him from doing that. Initially therefore, having the two characters play out only Lear-centric scenes appears to give Elerding the opportunity to do what Jack feels he’s never been able to do. In fact, Elerding doesn’t ‘try to do Lear without the subplot’ (as Jack puts it) at all. Instead, he introduces a subplot of his own in place of Shakespeare’s delivered through modern-day scripted dialogue spoken by Jack, Stephen and later Rachel (Katie Peabody), Jack’s daughter. Importantly, it’s a subplot which neither attempts to recreate the Gloucester story from the play nor to contemporise the main Lear-centric plot. Elerding’s script is better than that, subtly but powerfully resonating with themes from Shakespeare’s play as facts and hints about what has happened to these characters leading up to the hour or so we spend with them are interwoven with the director’s chosen scenes from the play. As such, Elerding’s use of Lear is reminiscent of Kristian Levring’s 2001 film The King Is Alive, in which a group of tourists stranded in the Namibian desert resort to rehearsing the play as a distraction from the desperate situation in which they find themselves. Elerding’s appropriation of Lear shuns Levring’s nihilistic and self-destructive perspective, however, utilising the play instead to present an intimate exploration of the complex relationships between colleagues, friends and family still in the immediate throes of personal tragedy.

Adapted for the screen by Elerding from his Ensemble Shakespeare Theater Company play of the same name, Lear’s Shadow retains the essence of theatrical performance without ever feeling simply like a filmed stage production. The play was first performed in 2017 with the audience sat at rehearsal tables surrounding the performance space as if ready to take part in a table read1; Elerding’s use of close-ups and mid-shots throughout his film, especially at times of heightened emotion, emulates the way in which the theatre audience would have been in close proximity to his characters when experiencing the original play. The director ensures his camerawork never distracts from the performances of his cast, choosing the moments to employ relatively more cinematic shooting techniques carefully. At one point, Jack and Stephen discuss whether or not sound effects are needed to bring the storm scene of 3.2 to life, with Jack declaring the best version of the scene he ever saw was Lear standing fully lit centre stage, simply making you believe the storm surrounded him. Moments later, the camera slowly pans around Jack as he delivers Lear’s opening speech of 3.2 in the middle of the rehearsal space, Elerding’s understated camerawork and Cross’s raw performance eloquently proving the character’s point. Mention must also be made of Ryan Moore’s original score heard at key points throughout, which is consistently cinematic whilst never feeling intrusive, melancholic without ever becoming melodramatic.

In almost every scene from Lear included in the film, Jack takes on the role of Lear; Stephen meanwhile shifts between a number of roles, at times playing multiple parts one after another in the same scene. It’s a smart choice. Sporting a wire crown and cheap red cloak over his everyday dress, and with a prominent black eye beneath his spectacles, Cross as Jack makes for a formidable yet vulnerable Lear, oscillating between ‘the dragon’ (1.1.123) of the early moments of the play and the ‘foolish, fond old man’ (4.7.60) of the later scenes impressively and, at times, without warning. Blue meanwhile deserves equal praise, believably presenting Stephen as an actor both willing and able to switch between multiple roles to drive Jack as Lear, keeping him focused on what they’re doing in the rehearsal room and not on anything else that may or may not be going on outside it.

Away from their Shakespearean performances, the dynamic between Jack and Stephen is authentically realised by Cross and Blue. The pair’s relationship has clearly been fraught in the past (professional grievances and personal bugbears make their way to the surface on a number of occasions) but it’s also clear that both men understand and care about each other deeply – something which feels as though it matters more during the brief time we spend with them than it has at any point in their lives before then, making it all the more important that Cross and Blue successfully convince us of that fact throughout. Whilst the character’s role is relatively small, Rachel turns Lear’s Shadow from a two- to a three-hander at the right moment, adding just enough to our understanding of the story as a whole without becoming a crude expository device or deus ex machina. Katie Peabody shrewdly uses her limited screen time to effectively craft Rachel into the quasi-Cordelia Jack’s Lear requires.

Whilst the division between Shakespeare’s scenes and the dialogue written by Elerding is overt, the film is at its best when the boundaries between Jack and Stephen and the Shakespearean roles they play are at their most blurred. As the two men perform sections of 1.4 – Jack as Lear, Stephen alternating between the Fool and Goneril – Jack becomes increasingly infuriated as he delivers Lear’s speech, in the play seemingly in response to Albany (not present in Jack and Stephen’s version) but delivered as an apostrophe to 'Nature … dear goddess' (1.4.267). As Jack yells the final words, ‘Away, away!’ (1.4.281), Stephen looks visibly moved by his anger, unable for a few seconds to respond or even to comprehend Jack’s outburst; but it’s not clear if this reaction is in role as the Fool, or as Goneril, or whether at this point Blue has moved back to simply playing Stephen. Perhaps Blue is playing both Stephen and the Fool, or Stephen and Goneril – maybe even all three. Sublime moments such as this are the reason that Lear’s Shadow never needs to set out to prove the relevance of Lear, allowing Shakespeare’s text and Elerding’s direction to exist concurrently to craft a single moment of simultaneous conflicting, enigmatic, yet utterly human emotion.


Lear's Shadow is currently on the festival circuit, although no screenings within the UK are scheduled at the time of writing. The film will also be made available through online streaming services in the future.


1 Ellen Dostal (2017) BWW Review: Ensemble Shakespeare Theatre Transforms Tragedy Using Theatre in LEAR'S SHADOW


By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

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