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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear


King Lear at RSC's New Theatre

The RSC's much-heralded King Lear arrives at the wide open spaces of the New Theatre, giving Brits the chance to see Ian McKellen in one of the theatre's greatest roles. It is worth the wait.

Lear is an uncomfortable play. It deals with large themes - the arrogance of power, stupidity of war, cruelty of torture and corruption of law (how far from the world we inhabit!) — as well as the intimate problems of aging and the family. It puts these together and challenges our most basic assumptions about life itself. But its grand scale and problematic text make Lear a very hard drama to bring off.

Ian McKellen plays his part magnificently. His Lear is a King-priest who strides onto the stage in a storm of organ notes, calling down blessings on us all. But all too soon this regality is shown to be rigidity and the blessings turn to curses that rebound and destroy him. McKellen depicts Lear's decline with merciless clarity and power. His cursing of Goneril (Frances Barber) is genuinely terrifying, evoking sympathy for her even as she plots against him. He also differentiates Lear's madnesses convincingly — from stormy rage to surreal rambling – while his gentle recovery and deathbed scenes would melt the coldest heart. Whichever of Lear's many moods he is portraying when McKellen is on stage he commands it.

But Lear is more than a star vehicle and sequence of brilliant scenes and unfortunately other aspects of the production lack the lustre McKellen brings to his role.

While Christopher Oram's set is simple and evocative – a colonnaded balcony, swathed in red, disappears off to the right – the action is mysteriously updated to a nineteenth century Cossack kingdom, making the play into a sort of Sisters Karamazov. Stephanie Arditti's costumes are gorgeous: Goneril's black ball gown, as she advances to destroy her father, has more menace than a cruise missile, but Cordelia's white one makes her look like a skittish teenager who's cranky from staying up too late. When she later dons a stylish military greatcoat to lead the army of France, well, I'd have deserted on the spot.

Trevor Nunn's direction is naggingly inconsistent, ranging from the expressionism of the opening ritual through food-based realism to sitcom-style wisecracking. Julian Harries' henpecked Albany looks more like Hugh Grant's older brother than a pagan chieftain, while Philip Winchester cannot drag his evil Edmund too far from away from pantomime villain.

Along the way we take in a Cossack dance for this is the RSC, and must have their singing and dancing and sword play. While these episodes are always consummately done, they can also clog the rhythm. So can an uncritical approach to the text: the chillingly credible sadist Cornwall (Guy Williams) appears not to have met the disguised Kent before, though a few minutes later Kent (Jonathan Hyde) tells Lear that they did. More distracting are the antics of Poor Tom (Ben Meyjes) and the Fool (Sylvester McCoy). It may be heretical to say it, but judicious cutting would make their contributions even more effective.

The Fool looks particularly odd surrounded by Cossack soldiers, eerily reminiscent of an earlier role of this actor's which I am too discreet to mention, and it is hardly surprising when they decide to hang him (though it is surprising that one of them appears to be the King of France who married Cordelia about an hour beforehand). This hanging they do on stage, just before the interval, so that the audience has to walk out leaving the poor chap dangling there.

But for most viewers the play will be carried by McKellen. Though it is to be hoped they will not overlook the more than able support of Barber and Hyde and Monica Dolan's Regan. But William Gaunt's Gloucester is also magnificent. If the play's most violent moment is his blinding, then its most daring wordless metaphor is when the sightless man sits alone and defenceless while a battle rages all around him. But its most daring line is "Never, never, never, never, never!" and this McKellen draws out into a lament of echoing inter-stellar emptiness.

If this Lear turns out to be something of a mixed bag, it is still unmissable.

The cast for this production which is booking at the New London Theatre (Drury Lane, London, WC2 Box Office: 0870 890 0141 12th January 2008 features Romola Garai, Frances Barber, Jonathan Hyde, William Gaunt, Monica Dolan
With: Ben Addis, Adam Booth, Zoe Boyle, Russell Byrne, Naomi Capron, Richard Goulding, Julian Harries, John Heffernan, Peter Hinton, Melanie Jessop, Gerald Kyd , Seymour Matthews, Sylvester Mccoy, Ben Meyjes, David Weston, Guy Williams, Philip Winchester. For full production details see Les Gutman's review of the BAM production after the LA review.
King Lear In Los Angeles
by Laura Hitchcock

Making its stately way across the country, King Lear is a sell-out at UCLA's Royce Hall. Slashed with torture and murderous greed, Shakespeare's King Lear is as devastatingly timely as ever. Sir Ian McKellen makes it personal. Every inch a king, albeit a wobbly one characterizing each of his 80-plus years, McKellen enters in regal red, accompanied by his family and retinue. McKellen demonstrates the physical line renderings for which he's famous, i.e., holding up the hollow crown and glaring through it at Cordelia when he tells her she'll get "Nothing." Despite Lear's familiar quirks, he finds the facets of power, madness, anguish and manic humor.

Director Trevor Nunn plays to McKellen's strengths and brings this play vividly to life through pace and nuance. The production is in constant violent motion. Nunn clarifies the unexplained disappearance of the Fool by having him hanged and underscores Kent's final lines ("I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me. I must not say no.") by having him pull a revolver as he exits. When Lear and the Fool cavort with Edgar, now disguised as a near-naked madman, on the storm-swept heath, there is an almost vaudevillian aspect to their styles and tatters. They are the equivalent of clowns in other Shakespeare plays.

The women pose the most questions in the excellent RSC cast. Frances Barber as Goneril and Monica Dolan as Regan are as viciously one-dimensional as their parts are written, losing no chance to vent a lifetime of resentment and ready to kill their husbands and each other for young Edmund. There's scope for more but it's not explored here. Romola Garai is a beautiful and passionate Cordelia but, costumed in a strapless debutante's ballgown that seems to fetter her emotionally, she lacks the warrior quality of a girl who stubbornly refuses to fawn and flatter.

The costumes are a story in themselves. Lear and his troup are costumed as Muscovite warriors, Goneril wears an Elizabethan ruff and Regan's dress is American Civil War era. The Fool is Dickens Music Hall. Glorious in their inconsistency, the costumes suggest the timeless quality of Lear's themes. The color red rotates from Lear to the older daughters, as each believes she's closer to the crown. After all is said and done, this is a gift, largely from Sir Ian McKellen, that will go home from the theatre with you.

Some viewers in Royce Hall's balcony complained they couldn't hear. Earphones are available by asking an usher.

The play will continue its run at UCLA Royce Hall through October 27, 2007.— For full production details see Les Gutman's review during the Brooklyn Academy of Music run below.


Review of King Lear at Bam By Les Gutman
FOOL: If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten/ for being old before thy time.
KING LEAR: How's that?
FOOL: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst/ been wise.
KING LEAR: O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,/ Keep me in temper: I would not be mad.

---Act I, scene v


Sir Ian McKellen
I. McKellen
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
A good subtitle for this King Lear would be "A Play About the Humbling Experience of Growing Old". What this is not is a Lear overflowing with passion and rage. It also doesn't strike me as particularly tragic. On the other hand, it is at once both surprisingly funny, surprisingly sad and, in its own way, surprisingly insightful.

All of this is being the case, let me cut to the chase, because the real question requiring an answer is how that fellow pictured to the left did. As has been widely reported, Ian McKellen (arguably the best actor working today), and Trevor Nunn (arguably the best director working today) have been looking forward to this collaboration for a quarter of a century. McKellen does not disappoint in the least; Nunn requires further discussion.

McKellen's Lear seems effortless. Of course it is not, but that quality enables him to render the king less powerfully than we have come to expect, while remaining just as -- or perhaps more -- compelling. It is quite clear, in this telling, that whatever the specific madness that afflicts Lear might be, it has begun to take its toll by the time the play's first words are uttered. This has an effect, since it thus strips the play of its basic tragedy. But Lear is, of course, a play that tells the same story twice, and one of the fascinating consequences of this "adjustment" is that it elevates the parallel of the Gloucester story.

The night I saw the play, Gloucester was played by William Gaunt's understudy (Seymour Matthews), but it mattered little as Matthews performed well and the center of gravity in this House of Gloucester was firmly in the hands of Philip Winchester's sensational Edmund. Nearly as fine was Ben Meyjes's Edgar.

While the House of Gloucester was well represented by the younger generation, the same cannot be said of the House of Lear. In equal measures histrionic and caricatured, Goneril (Frances Barber) and Regan (Monica Dolan), and their husbands, Julian Harries and Guy Williams, fall several notches below what we would expect of the RSC. Cordelia was portrayed by the understudy, Zoe Boyle, instead of Romola Garai, and did not suffer from these defects. Other strong performances are worthy of mention: Jonathan Hyde's Kent and Sylvester McCoy's Fool.

The treatment of the fool leaves some of Trevor Nunn's more significant fingerprints on this production. By casting the older than typical McCoy, filling him with self-loathing and then hanging him in full view of the audience, the role takes on a new and interesting meaning. Instead of relegating the Fool's death notice to a passing reference, that death now figures prominently in the notion that it represents Lear's spiritual demise as well.

Nunn has created striking visual images throughout, though it is not always clear to what end. While the story-telling remains vivid, the costuming is a puzzle. Russian influences, and Victorian ones as well, make one wonder if there is some intentional bow in the direction of the sister production of The Seagull intended. If so, it doesn't register. If not, the contemplated point of view escapes me. Nunn must also be faulted for the weakness of the Goneril-Regan aspects. In sum, then, while McKellen has scaled this Everest and planted his flag firmly in the summit, Nunn has not met our expectations similarly.

Will we see a better Lear than this in the 21st Century? Hard to say, but if so, McKellen's will not be far behind. Who knows? Gielgud took a crack at it at 90; maybe Sir Ian will have it in him again as well.


Editor's Note: Lear's repertory partner, was reviewed by Alexis Greene, whose review can be found: here.

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Trevor Nunn
starring Ian McKellen
with Ben Addis, Frances Barber, Adam Booth, Zoe Boyle, Russell Byrne, Naomi Capron, Monica Dolan, [Romola Garai], [William Gaunt], Richard Goulding, Julian Harries, John Heffernan, Peter Hinton, Jonathan Hyde, Melanie Jessop, Gerald Kyd, Seymour Matthews, Sylvester McCoy, Ben Meyjes, David Weston, Guy Williams and Philip Winchester
Design: Christopher Oram
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Sound Design: Fergus O'Hare
Music: Steve Edis
Fight Director: Malcolm Ransom
Running Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission
A production of The Royal Shakespeare Company
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St (Ashland/Rockwell Places)
Telephone (718) 636-4100
Opening September 11, 2007, closes September 30, 2007
Tues - Wed @7:30, Sat @2, Sun @3; $30-90
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 9/13/07 performance

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