How ‘King Lear’ and ‘Brexit’ Update Shakespearean Stories

Shakespeare’s plays were some of the first pieces of writing committed to film, and if this year’s TV movie Emmy nominees are anything by which to judge, the Bard’s messages and themes are still just as relevant today.

With Amazon Prime Video’s “King Lear,” director Richard Eyre, who has been staging Shakespeare plays in the U.K. for almost 50 years, says he decided to set the adaptation in a dystopian
version of modern-day Britain partly to avoid it “looking too much like ‘Game of Thrones,’” and partly to draw out the political parallels with the current climate.

“If there is a Shakespeare play for our time it has to be ‘King Lear,’ that sense of things falling apart, of autocratic rulers on the edge, has to be a story for our time,” Eyre says.

But other than the obvious “King Lear,” HBO’s “Brexit” also leans heavily on Shakespearean characters and dialogue to explore some of the playwright’s favorite themes of political
manipulation and deceit.

Eyre acknowledges the irony of being nominated alongside “Brexit,” which explores British politics and the Machiavellian practices that go on behind the scenes. “An academic sent me a
Ph.D thesis, which is called ‘King Lear, a Film About Brexit,’” Eyre says. “He was convinced that my agenda throughout was to make a film about Brexit, which it wasn’t, but I’m pleased that the resonances are there.”

“Brexit” centers around the manipulative strategy leader of the Vote Leave campaign Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch). Scribe James Graham, who has plenty of experience in the political film space, that he sought to emulate the Bard in critiquing politics through art. Graham says drama has a “social responsibility” to do so.

“You have to ask these questions. The Greeks did it and Shakespeare did it. I reject the premise that Brexit is the one single issue that we aren’t allwowed to put on stage or screen,” Graham says. “Of course the story is going to keep changing and we’re going to learn more and that was probably the criticism that we faced from people who had their own vested interest in us not doing it, their argument was, we don’t yet know the full story, but with Brexit we’re never going to know completely the full story for five, 10, 15 years, and I think it’s important that we start.”

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