nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 13, 2007
The Royal Shakespeare Company's handsome new revival of King Lear undoubtedly qualifies as an event. It features the largest cast you will see outside of a Broadway musical; it is helmed by internationally-renowned stage director Trevor Nunn; and it stars Sir Ian McKellen, a Shakespearean of legendary proportions. If one did not know any of this ahead of time, one would certainly be able to glean it from the anticipatory energy that permeates the lobby of BAM's Harvey Theater prior to showtime. On the night I attended, the place was humming with eager contemplation of what was to come.
So, after months of waiting and speculation, the question can finally be answered: does this Lear live up to all the hype?
The answer is: yes and no. Audiences will be treated to a Lear that has been meticulously crafted and thought out: the actors perform with impressive authority; the design elements are sumptuous and appropriate; the direction mostly binds everything together in a clear thematic manner. But, for all the care that has obviously gone into this production, it remains emotionally remote. There is a lot here to admire, but almost none of it will emotionally move theatergoers.
This is particularly strange considering how emotionally packed Lear is. Rightfully considered one of Shakespeare's most challenging texts, the play (which you can find a detailed plot synopsis of here) tackles mortality, loyalty, betrayal, ambition, and many other dark and colossal topics. Shakespeare leaves no stone unturned as he probes the downfall of a monarch and his royal family. Angst and intrigue abound as Lear's ungrateful daughters, Goneril and Regan, finally flip him the figurative bird, shattering his hot-tempered but fragile disposition. A third daughter, Cordelia, thought to be unloving by her father, gets unceremoniously exiled. Meanwhile, Edmund, the bastard son of Lear's right hand man, Gloucester, plans a cold-blooded power grab of his own by double-crossing his father and half-brother, Edgar, and romancing both Goneril and Regan.
And yet, with all of these machinations at work, very little of it registers on an emotional level. I have a few ideas why.
First is the company's vocal handling of the text. There's no doubt that this cast is more comfortable with Shakespeare's language than perhaps any other I've ever seen. But, their speech patterns are often a little too fast and their rhythms and cadences just foreign enough so that giant hunks of the story zoom right past the many American ears that aren't acclimated to them (mine included). It's flattering that the RSC thinks the audience is refined enough to keep up with them in this regard, but I, for one, could stand a little dumbing-down for the sake of clarity in this department.
Along those lines, the cast locates the music in Shakespeare's verse with an admirable degree of success: the Bard's words have never sounded so good (that is, when one can follow what is being said). But, that beauty comes at a price: fire and passion. Despite the auditory polish, there are many times when it feels like the actors are luxuriating in the poetry at the expense of emotionally connecting to what they're saying.
Then, there is Lear's nearly four hour running time. Compounded with the aforementioned impediments, the audience has a lot of time to let their minds wander, which is downright deadly when it comes to Shakespeare.
With all that said, however, there are still many moments when Lear hits the bullseye. The times when the company conveys the play's emotional urgency are priceless, as they do in the scene where Goneril and Regan strip Lear of his followers (one can almost feel the cold winds of change blow throw the theatre). Nunn's decision to have the daughters declare their love from a podium in the play's opening scene sums up the tense, neurotic energy of that situation perfectly. And, the Fool's death at the end of Act I is especially shocking (due, in part, to an impressively cunning bit of stagecraft I won't spoil).
Nunn's gift of composition is in full effect here. Whatever the production loses in clarity due to the company's vocal delivery, Nunn usually makes up for in stage pictures and spatial relations (a wonderful reminder that a picture can, indeed, be worth a thousand words). And there are some wonderful performances that plug right into the play's visceral nature. Key among these are the trio of Frances Barber, Monica Dolan, and Zoe Boyle (understudying for Romola Garai on the night I attended) as Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia: these women cut right to the savage heart of Lear. Other standouts include Jonathan Hyde as Kent, Guy Williams as Cornwall, and Seymour Matthews (understudying for William Gaunt) as Gloucester.
As for McKellen, his performance is much like the production itself: a lot of admirable craft, but very little to viscerally connect to. He conquers the physical challenge of playing Lear, however, which may be half the battle: he's old enough to play the age believably, but still vigorous enough so that the demands of the role don't wipe him out. And he proves to be a generous team player, knowing when to grab the spotlight and when to back off and let it shine on his co-stars. McKellen speaks the verse prettily, though, and his rendering of Lear's rapid Act II descent into frail, senile madness is poignantly convincing.
If this Lear doesn't quite live up to expectations, there are still a lot of things about it worth seeing. The RSC gets things right more often than not, and considering what a demanding text this is in the first place, that's an accomplishment demanding of respect in itself.