'I shall die not having seen Lear done better than this'
Emma Thompson returns to Shakespeare for the latest adaptation of King Lear. She tells Gemma Dunn all about her 'incredible' experience
Emma Thompson has form when it comes to sharing the screen with Sir Anthony Hopkins - but it's their forthcoming third reunion that has proved the game-changer, says the actress. For, in joining forces for the much-anticipated BBC adaptation of King Lear, the Oscar-winning co-stars - who shone in early-Nineties' films Howards End and The Remains of The Day - have embraced a newfound laxity.
"We did Howards End when we were both quite young," begins Thompson (59). "So, we said to each other this time - the third time - him nearly 80, me nearly 60, we said: 'Isn't it great? Because we're free now in the way that we work'.
"When we first worked together we were still bound by all sorts of things. So, we acknowledged the fact that now we feel as though we could do anything; it doesn't matter if we get it wrong, if we fail.
"We could be stupid, we could be useless, but we were fearless. And it's a very good creative place to be. It was joyful."
Set in the fictional present, the small-screen reworking of the William Shakespeare play, adapted and directed by director Richard Eyre, will see Hopkins as the eponymous ruler, presiding over a totalitarian military dictatorship in England.
Thompson, meanwhile, plays Lear's eldest daughter, Goneril, alongside Emily Watson and Florence Pugh who will play sisters' Regan and Cordelia, respectively.
Who else can you expect? Jim Broadbent, Andrew Scott, Christopher Eccleston, Tobias Menzies, Anthony Calf and Karl Johnson, to name a few. All of whom will attest that watching Hopkins at work was enough to inject joy into one of the greatest ever literary tragedies.
"I will never see a better Lear, I know that. I shall die not having seen anyone do it better," declares London-born Thompson. "We even had a two-week rehearsal, which is an absolute miracle on a film. We had the best time. We stood around watching each other - and we all had this incredible experience of watching Anthony Hopkins play King Lear.
"Every time he did his speeches on set and during rehearsals, he gave it full blast even if he wasn't on camera. He was miraculous."
She adds: "We all kept meeting behind pillars and going, 'I can't believe it. Have you seen what he's doing?' It was like that. He also said that he's never been so happy. He was working with proper theatre actors, as well, so he was completely at ease and he loved it."
How does she see the film, billed as a powerful and timely exploration of greed, love, power and mortality, in comparison with previous editions?
"This is the only production of Lear I've ever seen in which you actually sympathise, sometimes more, with the children than you do with Lear," Thompson notes. "And I think that's an amazing insight into the play; it's my favourite play, but I've never been able to see it like that, so I am very grateful."
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Goneril and Regan are both victims of their father's tyrannical streak, whereas their much younger sister Cordelia - the clear favourite - has managed to escape the majority of emotional abuse they shoulder.
"Goneril and Regan have always been in competition for their father's affections, as people who have been abused often crave the love and approval of their abusers, especially when that person is a parent," Thompson muses.
"Lear is an appalling man. And he's abused his children to such a degree that they are also appalling."
Whether it's 17th century or present day, it's dealing with a dysfunctional family in plain terms.
"If you've got family who've got that kind of power and there's that kind of power play at work, then things are going to go very badly wrong," she sympathises. "It starts in that fairytale way - 'Once upon a time, there was an old king and he had three daughters and he decided to divide up the kingdom' - but you know that things are going to go wrong right from the start. But, God knows, they go more wrong than anyone could possibly imagine. It's great to play all that rage. Really, really fun."
This, of course, isn't the first time the actress has tackled Shakespeare. She starred in the 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by her then-husband, Belfast-born Sir Kenneth Branagh. And Thompson, who is now married to actor and producer Greg Wise, with whom she shares two children, was only too happy to return to the playwright, as it meant teaming up with both Richard Eyre and Hopkins. "It was a no-brainer. Stupid phrase, but I was absolutely made up. It was an amazing experience."
King Lear, BBC Two, Monday, 9.30pm