PBS is broadcasting Ian McKellen’s King Lear under the auspices of its semi-regular program Great Performances. (The first airing on WNET, chanel 13 in NYC, was Wednesday, 25 March, but it's being repeated on WNET and other area PBS outlets.) I thought it would be worthwhile to revist the stage performance on which the video is based and which I caught at BAM’s Harvey Theatre on 15 September 2007. (The 2½-hour TV version was recorded at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, not on a theater stage, but all reports indicate that the production and the cast are essentially the same as the stage production. It was performed in 2008, at the end of the RSC tour, after the performance I saw.) I scored a ticket to the Royal Shakespeare Company presentation starring McKellen in the title role at the last minute when a friend had to give up her seat. (They were doing Lear in rep with The Seagull in which McKellen shared the role of Sorin with another actor, William Gaunt--who played Gloucester in Lear.) I think that, for once, Ben Brantley got his evaluation exactly right in the Times on 14 September. My only quibble would be that he was harsher on the rest of the company than I would have been; perhaps they hadn't settled into the new space as comfortably when Brantley saw the show as they had by the time I got to see it at the Saturday mat.
I had tried to get seats for Lear back when BAM opened their box office for single tickets, but the show had sold out in subscription already. (My theater-going friend, Diana, and I couldn't put together the minimum number of shows required for a subscription this time around. That happens sometimes, but the last time, when Vanessa Redgrave came in with Hecuba, we had no trouble picking up single seats to see her.) Anyway, Diana called the week before to say that a friend of hers, an actress whom I also know, had a ticket but had a rehearsal that afternoon and couldn't go. Since Diana also had a conflict, she offered me the seat, and I grabbed it. (Fortunately, I have no life, so I was available at no notice to go on a Saturday afternoon!)
The stage production ran 3½ hours (with a two-hour first act!), but the time moved quickly, despite what Brantley described as "a heightened costume melodrama" with "overbaked acting." Director Trevor Nunn created a compelling momentum--and when McKellen was on stage, it was filled with vibrancy anyway. In fact, in my opinion, if McKellen hadn’t been so terrific in the role, the production would have seemed fine; he just showed everyone else on stage up. Not his fault--though perhaps Nunn could have cast a higher-caliber company to support McKellen. He had the RSC to draw on, after all--yet none of this company had a name I've ever heard before. (I don't know if this was a touring cast, different from the one that played the roles back home, but I sort of doubt that.)
So, let me save my description of McKellen's work till the end or so, and get the small observations over with first. I didn't see Seagull, so I don't know what that production looked like, but Lear seemed to have been designed to save on costume expenses. Everyone was dressed like characters out of Tolstoy! (Costumes were "supervised" by Stephanie Arditti. Why this distinction was made for costumes, rather than "designed" as the other elements were credited, I don't know. The Voice said the costumes were mostly "pulled" from stock. Did RSC ever do a stage version of War and Peace?) Lear looked like a Cossack king and all the others, except the French soldiers Cordelia brings back with her, looked like they were plopped down somewhere in the steppes of Russia. (I assume the uniforms the Frenchies wore were based on period French military dress, but I wouldn't know. The British soldiers looked like they might rush off to fight in Crimea or some place!) The women's dresses were late-19th-century gowns, as if they were all about to take off for the ball. (Goneril had a stunning red-and-black velvet outfit she wore throughout the second act.) Edmund and Edgar, and Albany and Cornwall were costumed pretty much as matched pairs (until Edgar, played by Ben Meyjes, became mad Tom, when he was nearly naked and curiously resembled Golum in the films of Lord of the Rings--in which McKellen appeared, coincidentally)--all Cossacks; Burgundy and France were paired, too, except for some trim on Burgundy's uniform: a couple of panels which were . . . well, burgundy! (I'm not sure this was meant to be a joke--but I thought it was funny.)
(Side remark: Cornwall was played by Guy Williams. Didn't he play Zorro on TV in the '50s?)
The set (designed by Christopher Oram) was of this image, too. The basic element, which remained in place throughout, was a kind of balcony running from down right around to up left. (Otherwise, the stage was mostly bare, except for set pieces--tables, the beggar's hovel, the stocks, etc.--that were carried on and off for specific scenes.) It looked like marble, with wine-colored drapes across the openings like the boxes at an ornate opera house and the same fabric draped beneath the balcony rails like bunting. (This was torn down in one scene and carried around the stage when Lear's men behaved raucously in Goneril's castle--you know, drunken carousing.) As the play proceeded, the framing set piece became more and more decrepit as if it were decaying as the kingdom fell to ruin (The Picture of Lear's Kingdom?). The opening scene was resplendent in gold robes and rich costumes in grand ceremony, as if to set up the visual decline that began almost immediately. In the second act, it looked like Grey Gardens, especially when the ceiling collapsed. It was a tad obvious, and I'm not sure what any of it meant--Brantley suggested "the audience-wooing" Nunn was just doing "popcorn" theater and he may have been right. In any case, it was not destructive or disturbing.
I was put in mind of the last time I saw McKellen on stage, also at BAM. It was the Royal National’s fascist Richard III, and in that 1992 production, the costuming had real significance. Making Richard a military dictator à la Hitler, Mussolini, or Pinochet enhanced the interpretation and gave an added dimension to the production. (Costumes had been supervised by Anne-Marie Winstanley.) I'm reminded of an essay Robert Brustein published in the New York Times back in 1988 in which he contrasted what he dubbed "simile" productions of classics with "metaphor" stagings. "Simile directing," Brustein wrote, "is a prose technique. Its innovations are basically analogical--providing at best a platform for ideas, at worst an occasion for pranks." This seems to be what Nunn accomplished in Lear, just laid a look and set of images over the text without doing any real reinterpretation. "Metaphorical directing," Brustein continued, "attempts to penetrate the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equivalent--a process considerably more radical in its interpretive risks . . . ." This lines up with Richard Eyre’s R3 17 years ago (and which became a film, I recall). It accomplishes a deeper reimagining and tells us something new or unrevealed about the play. Nunn didn't seem to have attempted to do this, it seemed to me; he just dressed it up. I certainly don't know why Nunn decided 19th-century Russia was a useful image (except, as I suggested, that it dovetailed with Chekhov). It did no harm, and it looked nice, even if it didn't really add anything. (My one objection was that, since Lear is set in pre-Christian Britain, the Imperial Russian look is just a little too spiffy. I'd have preferred something rougher, more elemental.)
Now let's get to the acting. (I don't really have anything to say about the directing, except from the point of view that the actors' work was Nunn's ultimate responsibility. I can't say he made any wrong choices or interpretations; he just didn't seem to have pushed his cast to do anything extraordinary.) I'm not really going to single out anyone here--no one excelled or fell egregiously short. I'm just going to capsulize the whole thing--with the exception of McKellen, of course. Everyone did pretty much what you'd expect--no one surprised me or startled me with a novel idea or interpretation. Philip Winchester's Edmund was a little too actorly in his technique, especially his gestures. (The New York Post called him "hammy," though the Village Voice said he was "strong" and "lucid.") In his first scene, when Edmond extols his assets and says, "My mind as generous," Winchester made a sweeping, graceful arc with his arm, all his fingers extended, to point to his temple. This is the action of an actor trained to make gestures visible from the back row of the balcony--but it's not the gesture of a man talking heatedly to himself alone. If I'd been playing the part--and Edmund is one that I always wanted to play, second to Iago (I like the villains in Shakespeare! I got to play Don John, a sort of Iago-manqué)--I'd have done a simple short, sharp jab at my head with one finger (two, if the visibility demanded it--some theatrical adjustments are necessary!) That's just an example, of course, but Winchester did this same kind of thing all the time, and the other actors were only slightly less stagy, punching their dominant character traits (e.g.: Frances Barber and Monica Dolan's Goneril and Regan's villainy and treachery). It was always clear that they were in a play, while McKellen was in a world. (I'll get to that in a moment.) Considering that this was the RSC and this is their bread and butter--what they do with their lives, as it were--I expected much more. If this production were on the stage at the Public, say, or the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., I'd have said, 'Okay, it was a little flat, but good. It was a nice show.' But the RSC--they're supposed to be like the Comédie-Française doing Molière or the MAT doing Chekhov. It's what they do.
And none of this would have been all that obvious if it hadn't been for Ian McKellen. He was Lear--and I don't mean that in the clichéd way Hollywood uses it. He was a real man, aging, weakening, failing, floundering, lost, grasping for his waning strength and stolen dignity. However he did so, McKellen used both emotion and intellect to make Lear infuriating and sympathetic--by turns and often at the same time. McKellen was only 68 in 2007 (less than eight years older than I am--good grief!), but I never for a nanosecond doubted Lear was 80. I don't know if this was at all intentional, but there were times, after he'd turned over his kingdom to Regan and Goneril and been wandering about the land depending on their hospitality, that he appeared to be suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer's. I saw this with my father in his last years--McKellen even looked a little like my dad, with his longish white hair and full white beard--and in the early days of the illness, Dad sometimes seemed lost and confused, but he was aware this was happening and it made him angry and afraid. That's what McKellen was doing. I brought my opera glasses with me this time, and I was able to watch McKellen's face. His eyes changed from fierce and angry to afraid, to lost, to insane, to determined--and then through all those responses again as fate buffeted him about. Not a moment was false or "acted." (He must be either brilliant or oblivious--I couldn't figure out how the other actors, who weren't really giving him much, didn't throw him at least now and then. If he was doing all this technically, not only did he fool me good, but he must be as great an acting technician as Olivier was said to have been.) I know this sounds like puffery--as if I were overwhelmed by the Great Actor or something--and maybe I was. I don't think so, though. I watched him--having read Brantley's review beforehand--to see what he was doing, and when I began to feel he was giving this incredible performance, I tried to see if I could figure out why or how. (I couldn't: whatever technique McKellen used, he's mastered it beyond analysis by me. I can tell you the results, but not the method.)
I was particularly impressed with McKellen's performance of the two big speeches--"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" (for which he stripped naked before the storm's elements) and "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" when he carried Cordelia's body on stage at the end. Again, I can't really analyze the technique, but he managed to make these moments both significant and ordinary. I mean that he didn't underplay them so as to downplay their iconic theatrical nature and he didn't overplay them to signal their momentousness. I can only say that he conveyed the impact of the moments by the force of his voice--though not principally through its volume--and his face and body, but at the same time, they were part of a man's experience--however soul-rending that was. Of course, the play, being Shakespeare and Lear, is oversized, even melodramatic, but within the world of the play, McKellen was going through it all--while the other characters were portraying images--showing what it should look like.
I used to keep a mental list of the greatest individual stage performances I had seen. I don't do that anymore, but at the time it included James Earl Jones in Great White Hope, Alec McCowen in Hadrian VII, Virginia Capers in Raisin, and Cronyn and Tandy together in The Gin Game, among a few others. I'd have considered adding McKellen's Lear to the list, I think.