Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lear revisited

It was interesting watching the Ian McKellen/Trevor Nunn King Lear on TV the other night (above, with pop-ups, alas), after having seen the stage production at BAM last year. Most of the performances, which had never been largely scaled, improved slightly in close-up (the piece was shot almost entirely at close range, on constricted sets at Pinewood Studios), and overall the production made a better impression than it had in New York. The improvement was probably also due to the fact that much of the weirdness Nunn had allowed to flower onstage had been subdued or eliminated; this was a far more conventional, PBS-style reading than the one I called a "pastiche of operetta, music hall, and drawing-room comedy." The decayed belle époque theatre set had been discarded, as had most of the Muscovite design notes. Kent didn't commit suicide onstage, and Monica Dolan's Regan was no longer a tippling lush out of Noel Coward (although she did like her wine) - and so she got back her direct participation in Gloucester's blinding (which, unbelievably, Nunn had trimmed). Likewise, her poisoning by her sister, the coiled Frances Barber, was broken up by camera angles and so seemed less funny - onstage it had been a scream. It's true that PBS thereby denuded Nunn's version of much of what it had made it unusual - including Ian McKellen's nudity (the storm scene was much better without it!) - but on the whole, this was a good thing.

And the show certainly still had its eccentricities - like so many directors these days, Nunn insisted on offing the Fool onstage, for example - but at just three hours, it moved at a much brisker clip (although some of its cuts seemed a bit odd). Still, you couldn't say it actually gathered momentum, and McKellen was still bluff and remote, when, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, Lear is the tragedy most concerned with the problem of love, which is what makes it so piercing. And the production suffered in one obvious way in its transfer to the tube: its best performance, Philip Winchester's wickedly charismatic Edmund, was here far more restrained (I recall onstage he actually snapped his teeth at the audience in his hungry ambition). This wasn't a deal-breaker - still, in a show called "Great Performances," it was disturbing to see this production's single great performance whittled down to the dimensions of its new frame.

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