The question on everyone’s lips in Los Angeles: “Is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘King Lear’ worth it?” — worth the hype, the buzz, the extravagant eBay ducat auctions? Well, if what’s desired is an exciting, thoughtfully conceived and physically expressive interpretation of one of the world’s great plays, then it’s most certainly “worth it.” Auds may throng to cheer Gandalf and Magneto, but they will remain to laud Ian McKellen’s demonstration that the fundamental human battle with Nature, in our descent toward death, can be fought with courage and grace.
This “Lear’s” Britain is a blindly religious and reactionary state, helmer Trevor Nunn and designer Christopher Oram having set the action against a gilded, curved section of amphitheater decorated by heavy velvet bunting. Yet the high vaulted ceiling betrays significant cracking, just as Lear’s kingdom is feeling the pressure of burgeoning secular forces — the youthful ambition of usurping daughters Goneril (Frances Barber) and Regan (Monica Dolan) and the cynical Edmund (Philip Winchester).
(Dressing the play in the accoutrements of tsarist Russia, with hints of the revolutionary order to come, proves an inspired choice.)
Lear himself is at war, too, with his own proud and egocentric majesty. Nunn ingeniously suggests that the first hint of the King’s mental decline is his departure from a prepared abdication text to ad lib the fatal “Who loves me best?” challenge. Thereafter, both state and ruler are set on a collision course with Nature — or God — which abhors any violation of the natural order.
Both collisions are portrayed with awesome clarity, the former by the gradual disintegration of the glittering set into a no-man’s-land of hopeless debris, the latter by the actor’s careful plotting of each step of Lear’s downward spiral.
Intent on not tearing a passion to tatters, McKellen exploits every opportunity for humor and curiosity, investing the “Blow, winds” address with as much playful admiration as existential despair. In the hovel on the heath, Lear’s revenge fantasies send him into a gleeful dance with the Gollum-like “Poor Tom” (the physically adept Ben Meyjes, who unfortunately never gets a handle on why Edgar has assumed this disguise).
McKellen’s much-talked-about moment of kingly nudity is a shocking dramatization of senile dementia. Anyone who has suffered through an aged parent’s inexplicably inappropriate behavior will recognize the horror in the spontaneous effort to become one more of the world’s “poor naked wretches.”
Keeping the stopper on the King’s emotion bottle creates such sympathy and suspense that unleashing his ultimate rage — in the litany of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” on Dover Beach — has the effect of the thunderclaps we’ve already heard on the stormy heath, and will hear again during the climactic battle as Lear’s world finally implodes. Resulting catharsis renders the play’s final moments unutterably moving.
Though thrilling in its net effect, the production is not unimpeachable. Few of its thesps reach the heights of incisiveness, let alone audibility, of its star. Whatever happened to the RSC’s mastery of the muscular, supple iambic pentameter line, and the tradition of acting on the words rather than between them? Winchester chops up Edmund’s soliloquies with emphases on every third word as if playing for a youth audience, while Kent (Jonathan Hyde) and Gloucester (William Gaunt) practice more mellow tirade than inflected, verbalized thought.
On the other hand, Barber and Dolan always arrest attention as the two out-of-favor stepsisters whose wickedness reaches full measure at a turn of Fortune’s wheel, and Sylvester McCoy’s Fool wisely remains a poignant funnyman rather than (as he’s so often played) a mordant commentator on Lear’s follies. Romola Garai offers an unusually barbed and feisty Cordelia, though possessing a shrillness belying her father’s claim, “her voice was ever soft.”
Neil Austin’s artful lighting gradually transforms the space from the lush court to the devastated field of battle.
Given the thesps’ inconsistent verbal clarity, extensive upstage action and odd acoustics resulting from the rearrangement of Royce Hall into a three-quarter space, patrons are advised to brush up on the text in advance — hardly a hardship assignment — in order to follow the nuances of the subplots.