It looks like opera. For one thrilling, if disorienting moment, it even sounds like opera. And in some respects, Trevor Nunn’s spectacular RSC production of “King Lear,” running in limited repertory at BAM with Chekhov’s “Seagull,” actually plays like opera. In a curious way, the boldness of Nunn’s approach both protects and enhances the production’s crown jewel performance by Ian McKellen, whose generous and profoundly human interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic king ranks right up there with those of the gods of theater, living and dead.
The operatic note is visually sounded by designer Christopher Oram, who extends the artfully decayed grandeur of the Harvey Theater to the stage itself. The slatted roof of Lear’s palace may be dangerously rotted and open to the elements, but down below, all is pomp and majesty.
A curving marble colonnade stretches back and beyond the great central hall. Swags of regal red draperies hang from the upper balconies, warmed by the glow of gilded wall sconces. The setting having made its point, a sonorous blast of organ music announces the entrance of the full court, elegantly costumed by Oram in the deep black and burgundy beloved by monarchs. The effect is breathtaking.
This Lear has his royal moves down pat, but as he greets his court and announces the distribution of his vast kingdom to his three daughters, McKellen’s aged king, with his palsied gestures and failing mind, is almost unbearably human. As much a paterfamilias to the whole world as the monarch of one self-contained kingdom, this Lear matters to us all.
With each betrayal by his two elder daughters and their treacherous courtiers — which have the old king turned out of his castle, abandoned by all but a few true friends and finally driven to madness — his eyes open wide with the terrible knowledge that he’s brought this catastrophe upon himself. Only then, in an exquisite show of compassionate insight from McKellen, do those eyes cloud over or close shut.
Viewed in the grand setting of Nunn’s formal design, this Lear seems all the more vulnerable, his breakdown all the more tragic. While some of the characters involved in Lear’s fate allow for similar depth and complexity of feeling — most notably, Jonathan Hyde’s ever-faithful and utterly heartbroken Earl of Kent — the RSC company members concentrate, for the most part, on the theatrical outlines of their roles.
The agents of the king’s woes, in particular, conduct themselves with great panache and little reservation. Frances Barber, her face a hard and lacquered mask of beauty, is magnificently evil as the sleek and scheming Goneril. Monica Dolan takes voluptuous pleasure in the machinations of her younger sister, Regan. And Philip Winchester, as Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, is a consummate devil.
But against the aching humanity of this Lear, even his best friends, William Gaunt’s stalwart Gloucester among them, seem a bit tame in the emotional department. None, however, come across quite as sodden as Romola Garai’s Cordelia.
If Nunn’s expansive production can be held to a single overarching theme, it is the sense of a generational divide between Lear and his followers and the vicious young upstarts who have rejected all the values their elders taught them. Without a proper Cordelia to put their treachery in context, this otherwise stunning production loses its most lethal — and most contemporary — point.