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.


  1. Since it looks like I'm probably the only other person in these parts to catch the McKellan/Nunn Lear I thought I ought to add a little addenda to your review.

    I'll concur that there was something missing in the production- it didn't really move me and I felt an odd sense of remove from the action. You're dead on about Regan and Goneril, neither was as menacing as they ought to be and I found myself rather bemused when sequences like the poisoning seemed to be played for laughs. The hanging of the Fool was, in your words heavy handed and went nowhere towards solving the "Where does the Fool go" problem in the text. As for the much-vaunted nudity in the storm, I'm still not quite sure why it was there. And oh my, the play seemed to go on FOREVER. I'm a veteran of any number of Marathon performances, (Including the 4-hour plus staging of Homebody/Kabul in the Harvey a few years back) but I wasn't aware that this was supposed to be one. With all the money flowing into BAM, can't we do better then those glorified hardback barber's chairs in the Gallery? It would certainly make things more bearable...

    I generally enjoyed the design which I thought filled out the stage of the theatre better then a lot of productions in that space- far too often when I'm watching shows in the Harvey Theatre I feel like there's a disturbing lack of balance in the proportions between the actors and the proscenium. (Especially noticeable in stuff that transfers from the Donmar Warehouse and the like) One thing to consider about that opening fanfare: it might very well have been put there to defeat "Opening Hand syndrome" (if you're missing the reference, there was a great NYT article on the phenomena a few months back, "Enter Acting, Pursued by Applause") and when I saw it this certainly seemed to be the effect- I was worried people were going to start applauding when McKellan entered, which didn't occur.

    Still, for all the negatives, it was pretty thrilling to see McKellan in the role. Not a bad production, merely an average one, IMHO but given the buildup and the hype it's understandable how it could feel like more of a let down. And seeing an RSC production this side of the pond is great- talk about an embarrassment of riches when it comes to casting choices and production values that they have access to. It's nice to see a production with a large ensemble performing Shakespeare, especially with actors who can really speak the verse.

    I unfortunately didn't see The Seagull. I bought my tickets for Lear so far back that when I realized I'd gotten them for a Sunday (a one show day) it was too late to make any changes in my plans.

  2. It may be that I saw McKellen on a bad day, when he wasn't particularly invested in the performance. Still, I'm not sure I'd have been sold on his take, which was essentially to emphasize Lear's cosmic moral paradox as the source of his madness rather than any genuine emotional connection to his daughters. And regarding the opening fanfare: I'm not sure why people are dismayed by "opening hand syndrome" when we all know most of the audience is there because of the star, rather than the play (or is that precisely why we're dismayed?). At any rate, Nunn's solution to this "problem" was more dismaying than a brief burst of applause would have been.

    I am, of course, with you on those dreadful BAM Harvey seats. Fortuantely you weren't stuck in them for another three hours in The Seagull!