Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ripeness is (almost) all: Ian McKellen stars as Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company
directed by Trevor Nunn
starring Ian McKellen, William Gaunt, Romola Garai, Jonathan Hyde, others
at UCLA's Royce Hall
through October 28

King Lear is, hands down, Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. None of the others, with all due respect to Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello et al., comes even close. Lear, to put it elegantly, is a fucking scary nightmare vision of old age—of power turned to impotence, senility to madness, filial duty to callous ingratitude, or worse, abandonment. There’s also something almost postmodern about the play’s bleak sensibility, in its depiction of individuals trapped in their subjectivities (no one in Lear ever really connects, at least not for more than a few fleeting moments) and a universe ungoverned by any semblance of moral order or other centralizing force. Existence comes off as one cosmically absurd joke, as the hideous pain and malice the characters inflict on each other seem wildly out of proportion to either the provocation or the expected gain.

Because it taps so deeply into our subconscious fears, and because it is, in so many ways, about the breakdown of forms, Lear is a play that tends to resound more easily in the imagination than on the stage. And although I wish I could report otherwise, the touring Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen is no exception to the rule. Not that it isn’t a perfectly respectable production. But that’s just the problem: respectable isn’t transcendent, and am I wrong to expect a little bit of transcendence from Nunn and the RSC?

Perhaps the real disappointment is not finding it in Sir Ian’s performance, which has already received its share of raves. It’s certainly technically proficient, and Lear, make no mistake, is one of the most challenging roles ever written for the stage. It practically mandates years of experience—both in real life and in the theater—and there’s no question that McKellen has got the years, and the chops, to master it. Yet something about the character’s terrible, haunting power eludes him, or rather eluded me as I watched him. I never once lost the sense that I was watching a part being performed, and as a consequence felt oddly detached from even his most impassioned and most broken moments. Some part of this may have been due to my position in the balcony (I envied the lucky souls who’d managed to snag the seats flanking the stage) or to Royce Hall’s limitations as a performing space. Acoustically, it seemed to muffle or even swallow up the difficult late-Shakespeare syntax. Though it didn’t appear to diminish the excellent sound effects.

Still, there’s undeniable pleasure to be had in witnessing an expert at work. McKellen is particularly effective at conveying, from the outset, the peremptory, almost puerile irascibility of an aging man who may already be not quite in his perfect mind. It makes his transitions to foaming rage, childlike resignation, and back to rage again, that much more believable. As for that famous scene on the heath where McKellen drops trou, I have little to say except yes, the text supports it, though, in the words of one of my friends, “there are many bad Gandalf’s staff jokes to be made.”

The rest of the cast is capable and unexceptional, with only two standouts from this general level of competence—one good, one bad. The first, veteran William Gaunt, is outstanding as the duke of Gloucester, whose tragic arc both echoes and informs Lear’s own. The second, Romola Garai, it pains me to say, makes a rather poor Cordelia. An experienced film and TV actress for someone so young, Garai’s shown a winsome screen presence and no small talent in the acting department; indeed, there’s early Oscar buzz for her supporting turn in the upcoming “Atonement.” Here, however, she pitches the character of the dutiful daughter all wrong, falling back on a permanent tremolo to express everything from indignation to sorrow to love. Watching Cordelia’s reunion with Lear, I couldn’t help being distracted by the marked contrast between McKellen’s thespian skills (in that one scene he’s perfect, playing Lear as, all of a sudden and simply, an old, old man) and Garai’s (still just trilling away). By contrast, Lear’s last scene with Gloucester is extremely affecting, because the two actors are so well matched.

Production values are good without being elaborate: the set, in particular, is bare bones, though the costumes—suggestive of imperial Russia—are luxurious. There’s nothing particularly imaginative in the staging, although Nunn definitely imposes his own interpretation of the Fool’s fate at the end of Act V. The company proves its old-school training in the knock-down, table-turning swordfight in the last scene, which is about as close to the real thing as most of us are likely to get. It’s very well-executed, without being anything especially new or eyebrow-raising. For better or for worse, the same might be said about the production as a whole.


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