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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: September ::
McKellen's King Lear at the BAM
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0620  Wednesday, 19 September 2007

[1] 	From: 		Hardy M. Cook <
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	Date: 		Wednesday, September 19, 2007
	Subj: 		McKellen at BAM

[2] 	From: 		Lynn Brenner <
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	Date: 		Monday, 17 Sep 2007 10:22:02 -0400
	Subj: 		Re: SHK 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM

[3] 	From: 		Hugh Grady <
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	Date: 		Tuesday, 18 Sep 2007 10:10:06 -0400
	Subj: 		RE: SHK 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM

[4] 	From: 		Joe Conlon <
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	Date: 		Tuesday, 18 Sep 2007 06:25:00 -0400
	Subj: 		Re: SHK 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Hardy M. Cook <
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Date: 		Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Subject: 	McKellen at BAM

Ian McKellen Plays Shakespeare and Chekhov, But Nobody Wins
by Michael Feingold
VILLAGE VOICE

http://www.villagevoice.com/theater/0738,feingold,77827,11.html

King Lear and The Seagull are both plays about meaninglessness, but that 
doesn't mean they don't mean anything. Quite the contrary. The 
achievement of both plays is that they manage, while depicting the 
meaningless, arbitrary twists and turns of fate, to create a sense of 
order that supplies, by its existence, an alternate view: If plays so 
full of unjust, unexpected, inexplicable reverses can make sense, the 
universe can probably make sense too. We just don't happen to know what 
sense it makes. Productions of King Lear and The Seagull, consequently, 
need their own sense of order to a degree that many plays don't. We'll 
never understand nature's way of organizing the universe, but at least 
we can see how some theater artist's sensibility has organized Chekhov's 
or Shakespeare's depiction of it, and take a little comfort from that. 
In both plays, it's easy for artists to lose their way. With so much, of 
such violence, going on, a sense of artistic focus can only be achieved 
by hard struggle.

There are hints of the struggle, but regrettably little achievement, in 
the two productions by Trevor Nunn, starring Ian McKellen, that the 
Royal Shakespeare Company has brought to BAM. The most striking feature 
of both is their overall lack of effect-a kind of topsy-turvy triumph, 
given the potential cumulative power packed in these two familiar 
scripts. Maybe the familiarity itself has, in Nunn's approach, bred a 
degree of contempt. Both plays are handled as merely one bit following 
another, this bit done this way and that more famous bit done, a little 
louder and more stagily, that way.  The emotional connective tissue, the 
sense of ongoing life that makes both plays so incredibly vivid in wiser 
hands, can barely be glimpsed. There are some "new" dabs of 
interpretative gimmickry-Nunn finds wrong places to show us both the 
Fool being hanged and Treplev's first suicide attempt. But without a 
context to make them meaningful, gimmicks are never more than just 
gimmicks. Shakespeare and Chekhov, who pointedly kept the two incidents 
I've mentioned offstage, probably had better reasons for doing so than 
Nunn has for dragging onstage what the authors omitted.

The situation isn't McKellen's fault. Though his previous stage work has 
always been marred by his tendency to treat every role as the occasion 
for a show-horse exhibition of technical skill in lieu of a performance, 
here he is mellow, disciplined, strong where the context demands it 
rather than show-offy. If he still seems unconnected to his roles, that 
merely makes him the most visible symptom of the general unconnectedness 
on Nunn's stage. At quiet moments his Lear is often moving, and his 
rueful, mildly cranky Sorin in Seagull is even better. He may yet become 
an actor in his old age.

Both plays have famously troubled audiences in the past: King Lear 
(though always viewed as great) left post-Restoration England 
uncomfortable until Nahum Tate supplied a tidier ending, in which 
Cordelia lived to marry Edgar. The Seagull, premiered by a standard 
Russian company of its day, left spectators baffled, a reaction that was 
repeated in Western Europe after Stanislavsky's production rescued it 
from oblivion. Chekhov's play didn't seem to be about anything, people 
complained-just as they had once complained that Shakespeare's play 
seems to come out "wrong," that it has either too many conclusions or none.

In part, the troubled response stems from the complex moral sense that 
infuses the two works, because both Shakespeare and Chekhov found human 
beings a fascinating, insoluble problem. In both plays, the "good" 
characters lose, or die; the "bad" thrive, but only for a while, and not 
very happily; in the end they'll die too. The moral is not that good has 
no chance, or that good and bad are purely provisional values, but that, 
all things considered, good actions generally help human life along a 
bit better than bad ones.  The difficulty comes in trying to determine, 
given our tough world, what constitutes a good choice. If the 
irredeemably evil people in King Lear do things that are inherently 
vicious, the "good" people often engage in behavior that we only approve 
because we've been told from the start that they're good. Regan and 
Goneril are obviously lying to Lear in the first scene, but it's Lear's 
excessive demand, and Cordelia's equally excessive refusal to cooperate 
with it, that cause all the trouble. (Similarly, the brutal way we see 
Gloucester being treated onstage lets Shakespeare downplay the fact that 
he has, after all, committed treason. If he were caught funneling money 
to Osama, how many Americans would scream for his eyes to be put out?) 
In Chekhov, where there are no irredeemably evil people, the choices are 
even trickier. Konstantin, trapped in a lousy situation, sulks and makes 
scenes rather than search for a way out; lovestruck, starry-eyed Nina 
plunges heedlessly into a life that causes herself and others no end of 
pain. The sources of their agony, Arkadina and Trigorin, may be more 
successful, but they're hardly happier; as in Lear, what the older 
generation has that the young lack seems more the will to survive than 
anything else.

Little of the mapping by which Shakespeare and Chekhov lead us through 
this thicket of moral confusions survives at BAM, because Nunn's 
productions, slipshod and capricious in staging, are so erratically 
performed that it's hard to tell what most of those onstage think 
they're doing at any given moment. There's lots of overemphasis and 
shouting, usually where it's uncalled for; the company's slovenly 
diction and jumble of accents makes hay of all class distinctions, while 
Nunn's directing makes an even worse hash of every relationship. This 
Lear starts with the king leading everyone offstage, to ponderous organ 
music, for what is apparently an important religious ceremony, though 
his two chief ministers, Kent and Gloucester, stay behind to gossip; 
this Arkadina (Frances Barber) spends so much time fondling the doctor 
that you wonder why somebody doesn't slap her. But then, Nunn's 
treatment of the female characters is uniformly crude and heavy-handed: 
Barber reduces Arkadina's charm to a set of Lucy Ricardo tantrums; her 
Goneril is like a Disney witch, balanced by the hypocritical Minnie 
Mouse of Monica Dolan's Regan. (Dolan's Masha is like a lugubrious 
mallet, striking every line into a dismal moan.) Most dismaying of all 
is Romola Garai, whose over-italicized, openly fake indicating makes 
both Cordelia and Nina nearly unwatchable.  Some of the men do better. 
Philip Winchester is a strong, lucid Edmund, and Ben Meyjes, though 
lacking the comic sense for Medvedenko, gives Edgar a steadily deepening 
emotional growth.  Richard Goulding makes Treplev a touching bundle of 
nerves, while Guy Williams provides equally effective, and quite 
different, portraits of Cornwall and Shamrayev. Alone among the 
principal women, Melanie Jessop comes off credibly as an arrestingly 
quiet Polina. The costumes for both productions have apparently been 
pulled from RSC stock; Janet Bench, who did the pulling for Seagull, 
knows her business. The music for both shows, credited to Steven Edis, 
sounds more pulled from stock than composed for the occasion-but, given 
Nunn's desultory approach, it's hard to know what the occasion is. New 
York has seen four important Lears in the past three years; despite all 
its good points, this one is the least affecting, and least excitingly 
acted, of the lot.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Lynn Brenner <
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Date: 		Monday, 17 Sep 2007 10:22:02 -0400
Subject: 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM

Arthur Lindley <
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 >It must have improved considerably since it opened in Stratford a few 
months ago.

I wouldn't be too sure of that. I saw it last Tuesday, and although I 
thought Ian McKellan's performance was mostly wonderful, I found the 
production disappointing and very uneven.  It includes amateurish 
melodrama (Edmund did everything but twirl a mustache) and very stylish 
high comedy (Goneril and Regan) and a Fool whose delivery is virtually 
incomprehensible.

Lynn Brenner

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Hugh Grady <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 18 Sep 2007 10:10:06 -0400
Subject: 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM

I was lucky enough to get tickets to see McKellan as Lear at BAM, and I 
want to echo all those positives that have come out about it. One could 
quibble about some of the supporting roles, but overall it was one of 
the best performances of the play I've ever seen, and McKellan was 
wonderful. It was powerful theater.

The setting really helped. The BAM theater is built into a ruined early 
20th century interior of damaged marble and tiles with great 
architectural soaring effects-the perfect background for this play about 
things having fallen apart or, as Walter Benjamin says, of history 
surviving in the form of ruins in the present.

Best,
Hugh Grady

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Joe Conlon <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 18 Sep 2007 06:25:00 -0400
Subject: 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0614 McKellen's King Lear at the BAM

Concerning tickets:  When I was there last Saturday, there were a number 
of people trying to sell their extra tickets out front before the 
performance. As a last ditch effort, it might be worth trying.

Joe Conlon

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