Monday, September 10, 2007
"This is not Lear . . ."
. . . it's only Ian McKellen.
Although it hasn't quite opened at BAM, word is already spreading that, despite the pre-show hype, the Ian McKellen King Lear (directed by Trevor Nunn) is something of a bust. I caught one of the last "previews" this weekend (it's already sold out, and the production has already "opened" at the RSC, so please, fellow bloggers, spare me a recap of the whole George Hunka debate), and am here to report that yes, Sir Ian does indeed drop trou during the storm scene; but reason not the need - as one blogger breathlessly reported, "Gandalf is hung!" Despite the extra inches, McKellen isn't every inch a king, however. Instead, he offers a dryly cerebral, actor-tricksy performance in a role that should descend to the core of human vulnerability; true, his choices are often intriguing, and he's always watchable, but you won't feel for McKellen's Lear, or much care if he (or Romola Garai's rather horsy Cordelia) lives or dies.
The evening would still be worthwhile, of course, if Trevor Nunn had assembled a stunning production around McKellen's hollow star turn, but alas, this may be the weirdest, most rambling Lear I've seen. Set in a crumbling, belle-epoque theatre (rather like the one in which we're sitting, the BAM Harvey), the production opens to thunderous organ peals, and Lear in Orthodox-bishop drag, mumbling imprecations to the sky; Nunn then shifts gears to what feels like operetta, playing much of the opening division-of-the-kingdom sequence lightly, even for laughs. Soon thereafter, the Cossacks seem to have invaded, and the Fool (Sylvester McCoy) drops in from the local music hall to play the spoons.
Meanwhile Regan and Goneril, though dressed like Cinderella's stepsisters, shift gears into Noël Coward. Monica Dolan makes Regan a lightweight lush who's always on the bottle (Nunn simply cuts her vicious lines at the blinding of Gloucester, realizing, I suppose, that laughter here would be unthinkable). As Goneril, the redoubtable Frances Barber hits some nicely perverse, exasperated notes, but her murder of her baby sister is wildly misjudged; Barber whips up the poison right onstage, and pours it with a smirk into the alcoholic Regan's cups - as she subsequently tippled, I found myself fighting off the giggles.
Clearly, Nunn is bent on redacting the standard interpretation of this deadly duo - i.e., that their evil blossoms with their power; but he's got nothing compelling to replace it with, and, sans villains worth Lear's salt, the production merely struts and frets its hour upon the stage - actually, make that its three hours and forty minutes upon the stage (it's also the longest Lear I've seen). One might imagine that Nunn's strategy is to stress the role of Edmund (and, by proxy, the play's questioning of the gods and stars in the problem of evil), and luckily he's got a truly great one in the lithely hungry Philip Winchester (who actually snaps his teeth at the audience) - but alas, the character simply doesn't have enough stage time to serve as sole thematic fulcrum, and so the strategy fails.
The production has, of course, its compensations. Nunn remains a brilliant (if somewhat literal-minded) dramatic analyst, and his emphases on overlooked details can sometimes be striking - and so occasionally we're willing to grant his pastiche of operetta, music hall, and drawing-room comedy some license as a symptom of an utterly random (dramatic) universe - but then at other times, such as the heavy-handed hanging of Lear's Fool, we're suddenly aware that Nunn has ordered up more than enough rope to hang himself, too, and our sympathy utterly fails.
Flying long-haul: Jonathan Hyde, Frances Barber, and Monica Dolan in The Seagull.
The director has better luck with Chekhov's The Seagull, which I saw sans McKellen (on days when he's not doing Lear, he plays Sorin - whom I saw capably handled by William Gaunt). Nunn here offers a generally straightforward reading of the play, with only one false move (he stages Kostya's first suicide attempt, much as he stages the hanging of Lear's Fool - perhaps an intended parallel, but since Hamlet is actually The Seagull's Shakespearean twin, this feels more likely a bad-idea double whammy). Frances Barber is once again in fine form as she segues from slimy sibling (Goneril) to monstrous mother (Arkadina), and though Richard Goulding feels miscast as son Kostya, he nevertheless delivers an intelligent, convincing performance. Romola Garai remains more equine than avian as Nina, and seems almost half-crazed early on, but actually turns down the volume for her mad scene, which as a result is quite affecting (if not shattering).
The rest of the ensemble is solid (and sometimes better; Ben Meyles is all but definitive in the supporting role of Medvedenko), although there's one important exception - Nunn has inexplicably cast the sexily-tressed Gerald Kyd as Trigorin, the stick-in-the-mud novelist whom Nina's stuck on. Kyd's no slouch, but he's also hardly incisive, and since he looks as if he should be crooning "Moonshadow" or "Morning Has Broken," the intended irony in Nina's infatuation goes missing. This misstep, combined with indulgent pacing, causes The Seagull, though airborne, to slowly coast downward. Indeed, by the end of its flight, we're more than ready to disembark. Which is a pity, as with maybe twenty minutes knocked off its running time, this production could truly soar.