Clarity is Trevor Nunn’s hallmark. Not just his leading actor Ian McKellen but almost every cast member of Nunn’s cross-cast RSC productions of “King Lear” and “The Seagull” uses telling line-readings to hone details unexamined by less rigorous directors. The result is remarkably lucid. But that comes at a price. Even though Christopher Oram’s handsomely decayed set for “The Seagull” is populated by just six silver birches, you can’t see the wood for the trees. And is lucidity the supreme virtue for “King Lear,” a play governed by individual and collective madness?
Nunn’s desire to (over)explain everything is apparent from the very opening of “Lear,” in which thundering organ music ushers in the cast headed by a golden-robed Lear in an added ceremony displaying the full weight of his estate. Yet with an actor of McKellen’s stature, such pomp and circumstance is unnecessary. As Jonathan Hyde’s piercing Kent tells him, “You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master”.
He’s right. Even without the power of his movie stardom, the immense breadth and depth of McKellen’s stage skill allows him to hold his rank with seeming effortlessness. Even at 68, McKellen retains a commanding physical prowess. His immense ease allows him not to act king — he just assumes the position and forces everyone either to defer to him or, like his enemies, be self-conscious when not doing so.
With his status so high, he can afford to take risks. Thus when announcing he will divide his kingdom among his three daughters “while we unburdened crawl to death,” he does so with a twinkle in his eye that is simultaneously endearing and threateningly insincere.
That degree of contrast and conflict is central to McKellen’s interpretation. His portrait of Lear’s descent into madness is painfully lit by flashes of hope, doubt and, above all, intelligence. Even during lighting designer Neil Austin’s steely storm scene he never caves in to blind, generalized rage. His Lear is a man sadly aware of his unraveling mind and he generates highly calibrated emotions.
Oram’s set, a monumental curved back wall of classical columns and red-plush balconies, is literally a backdrop to events — it collapses as Lear’s world fall apart. Yet the effect is overly conceptual because the production itself fails to generate and sustain the energy to galvanize so powerful an image.
Philip Winchester creates a swaggeringly attractive Edmund who amuses himself mightily, vividly conveying the character’s ultimately overarching ambition. Ben Meyjes is less certain in the minefield of a role that is Edgar. In contrast with McKellen, it’s hard to see the method in his madness.
Frances Barber plays Goneril by the book, a lascivious sneer never far from her lips. Monica Dolan seizes her opportunities as her madder sister Regan, gleefully tossing wine in Kent’s face as he’s locked into the stocks or emitting a squeal of sexual ecstasy as William Gaunt’s benevolent Gloucester is blinded.
Romola Garai starts off as an intriguingly coltish and headstrong Cordelia — she laughs at the absurdity of being asked to measure her love for her father. Yet the affecting tenderness of being finally reunited with him is down not to her increasingly strained tones but the sweet grace of McKellen’s broken majesty.
It was only to be expected that McKellen should dominate “King Lear.” What’s surprising is that he quietly does the same in “The Seagull.” His touchingly benign turn as Arkadina’s elderly brother Sorin, one of the play’s more overlooked roles, is proof once and for all that there are no small parts.
Increasingly baffled by his decline into ill-health and balefully looking back over his life, his comic timing is immaculate. That’s much needed in a production which is determined to run the emotional gamut but takes its time doing so: it runs 25 minutes longer than Ian Rickson’s recent superlative Royal Court production, which is eyeing a Broadway berth in 2008.
If the default mode for the characters is melancholia, several of them do their damnedest to avoid it. As the actress Arkadina, Barber majors in self-absorption. Bandaging her son’s head by laying him across her knee, she finally allows tenderness to show itself. But the production’s penchant for emotional extremes has her comically screaming her jealousy and rage so often that it becomes hard to see what is and isn’t real.
As Konstantin, Richard Goulding also takes an extreme route. As feverishly self-absorbed as his mother, he displays intensity rather than letting it inhabit him. Garai’s Nina, by contrast, is sandbagged by Gerald Kyd’s neatly unsympathetic but one-note Trigorin. We never see the moment when he realizes he wants her.
Nunn’s elaborations with his own version of the text do not help. As with the scene in “Lear” where he stages the Fool’s usually unseen death, Nunn adds a scene of Konstantin’s attempted sucide, with the entire cast rushing around in choreographed horror to not much effect.
Those and other overly explanatory moments rob audiences of opportunities to discover the subtext for themselves. It’s as if Nunn, a previously magisterial Shakespeare director, now doesn’t trust his aud’s imaginations. Theatergoers nonetheless will lap up the intermittent power of these productions — on a world tour including a New York stop at Brooklyn Academy of Music before playing London’s West End in November. But that’s due to the intelligence and sheer theatrical might of McKellen’s performances rather than Nunn’s disappointing lack of directorial stamp.