The achievement of Ian McKellen’s King Lear is that he’s the first I’ve seen to fully convey the horribleness of monstrous old age. At 68, the very fit Mr. McKellen needs all his phenomenal stamina to scale the peaks of the exhausting role. But was ever there a “ruin’d piece of nature” like this demented, near senile Lear?
To be sure, the unstoppable showy side to Mr. McKellen, the star actor, is on virtuoso display. There are times in Trevor Nunn’s disappointing production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when it seems that no one else matters onstage. Mr. McKellen’s confident, supreme stagecraft still amazes; the swooping cadences of his voice are unmistakable; his memorable “never, never” lament for the hanged Cordelia is delivered like the dreadful toll of the death knell. But he overcalculates his Lear, never letting us forget who’s playing him.
Which other actor would strip naked in the heath scene? Well, Sir Ian Holm (who did it first in Richard Eyre’s 1998 production of King Lear at the National Theatre). Is it necessary for either of these theatrical knights to show us their wee-wees? Only if you take “unaccommodated man” literally. In this tragedy of renunciation and unraveling, the Lear who’s lost in the wilderness is stripped naked of all power and illusion. Even so, I thought Mr. McKellen’s nude moment, though not essential, worked effectively because in the midst of Lear’s pitiful befuddlement of uncomprehending, wrecked old age he returned the fallen king to innocent childhood.
FOR MANY OF US THE IMPOSSIBLY challenging King Lear is the greatest of all plays and the foundation of modern drama. “What is the cause of thunder?” goes one of the king’s astonishing questions. Shakespeare’s tragedy asks for the very meaning of life itself (and receives no answer). But Mr. Nunn’s fatally flawed production too frequently turns tragedy into unambiguous melodrama.
His added opening scene is a flamboyantly operatic preamble—a mimed, stately procession led by Lear to loud blasts of organ music, before everyone traipses off again so the play itself can actually begin. What’s the point—other than a generalized theatricality? The costumes for the women are silky ball gowns, yet the men, including Mr. McKellen, are dressed in all-purpose robes like characters out of Eastern Ruritanian or Gilbert and Sullivan. The pseudo-operatic nature of the new opening is reinforced by a set design that resembles a row of plushly draped opera boxes. Shakespeare set King Lear in pagan ancient Britain (and skipped through time zones as usual). But in Mr. Nunn’s production, we’ve a peculiar, quasi-religious pomp imposed at the outset, with the entire court prostrate before the all-powerful king, who seems to be some kind of doddery fairy tale archbishop dispensing blessings.
Then the real play begins at last—but it’s performed initially for laughs (and gets them). Again, it’s the wrong note—and another overplayed card. The chilling opening scene of King Lear that sets the appalling tragedy in motion is a farce of cruel vanity and overdemanding, foolish fatherhood. But do Lear’s wormy words announcing the reading of his will suggest a comedy? “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose … while we/Unburden’d crawl toward death.”
The tragic tone establishes itself with Lear’s combustible, lamentable change, but Mr. Nunn’s choices remain odd—the partying Lear accompanied, not by the squires of the text, but hearty Russian Cossacks about to break into the kazatsky. Or the distinguished director is curiously literal—Poor Tom, the pretend lunatic of the play, is described as a “poor, bare, forked animal,” so the actor playing him lies on his back imitating a fork, sort of.
There are surprisingly mixed performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company that Mr. Nunn formerly ran—the near pantomime ugly sisters of Frances Barber’s Goneril and Monica Dolan’s Regan; Romola Garai’s Cordelia is earnest and shrill (as opposed to Lear’s “Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle and low ”). William Gaunt is a thoroughly decent Gloucester who handles the very difficult Beckettian suicide on the cliff movingly well. I enjoyed Ben Meyjes’s uncompromised whirling bedlam spirit of Edgar. Alas, Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s Fool uses the old British vaudevillian trick of merrily clacking two spoons together on his thigh to accompany his speeches and songs. The outcome is that this Fool is too much the fool, and you often can’t hear what he’s saying.