EmptyBAM Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
Through Sept. 30
Many of us saw each installment of "The Lord of the Rings" just to watch Ian McKellen portray the lean, white-bearded and mysterious wizard Gandalf. But for McKellen, film always has been a temporary detour from theater. Now, heading the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "King Lear" and featured in Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," McKellen demonstrates the meticulous craftsmanship that has made him a top-flight classical actor of the British sort. Trevor Nunn's operatic production of "King Lear" is not top-notch, but that probably will not deter audiences eager to swoon at the RSC's feet.
At the beginning, McKellen's king is the embodiment of a deteriorating, irascible old man. Entering the cavernous, stone-gray hall of a set, his hoary, red-robed Lear takes baby steps to reach the table where he will divide the kingdom among his three daughters. His hands shake as he examines the map; he needs notes to prompt him. Later, when daughters Goneril (Frances Barber) and Regan (Monica Dolan) turn him out of their homes, he rages. These women are poisonous; still, one can hardly blame them.
McKellen's Lear evolves from an angry, forgetful royal to a man gone mad from abuse and grief. Decked out in rags and a ramshackle crown, sitting on the ground and cradling blind Gloucester (William Gaunt) in his arms, McKellen evokes true pity and fear. By production's end, he has accomplished a journey into physical and emotional frailty, fashioning a Lear who survives only on wisps of strength.
The 31⁄2-hour production that surrounds this remarkable performance is by turns busy and ponderous. Nunn ("Les Miserables"), ordinarily expert at this kind of large-scale event, has not even engineered spine-tingling melodrama. A couple of portrayals are extreme and absurd, such as Regan (Dolan) and Cordelia (Romola Garai). Others, such as Edmund (Philip Winchester) and Edgar (Ben Meyjes), are adequate but dull. Occasionally, as in the case of the Fool (Sylvester McCoy), the performer is deft but speaks too fast to be understood.
With "The Seagull," by contrast, Nunn makes Chekhov look effortless. Staged with ingenious economy on the enormous stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, the play flows seamlessly, and during three hours-plus the director strikes a fine, entertaining balance between comedy and pathos. Here is ensemble acting, with McKellen as the elderly Sorin contributing dollops of humor. Barber's Arkadina is theatrical, fierce and selfish, and the appealing Gerald Kyd manages to be sympathetic and self-absorbed as her lover, the writer Trigorin. Garai's Nina, while mannered, is finally moving.
This "Seagull" is about theater, writing, being an artist or a hack, disappearing into nothingness in the country or daring the city. Nunn falters with "Lear" but reveals "Seagull" in all its stimulating variety.
KING LEAR/THE SEAGULL
Royal Shakespeare Company
Playwrights: William Shakespeare/Anton Chekhov
Director: Trevor Nunn
Set designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Steven Edis
Sound designer: Fergus O'Hare
King Lear/Sorin: Ian McKellen
Goneril/Arkadina: Frances Barber
Regan/Masha: Monica Dolan
Cordelia/Nina: Romola Garai
Duke of Albany/Worker: Julian Harries
Duke of Cornwall/Shamrayev: Guy Williams
King of France/Servant: Ben Addis
Duke of Burgundy/Yakov: Peter Hinton
Earl of Kent/Dorn: Jonathan Hyde
Earl of Gloucester/Sorin: William Gaunt
Edgar/Medvedenko: Ben Meyjes
Edmund/Worker: Philip Winchester
Lear's Fool: Sylvester McCoy
Servant/Polina: Melanie Jessop
Soldier/Trigorin: Gerald Kyd
Messenger/Konstantin: Richard Goulding