Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It's Not Good to Be King

I bought the tickets in January to have the privilege to see Sir Ian Mckellen as King Lear yesterday.
We sat in the nosebleed section which I'm sure gives us a completely different experience than that of those sitting in the orchestra seats. From up there, I could see a termagant audience member who decided to rest his sneakered foot on the stage, which was very close to the first row. Had I been an actor, I'd have taken a sword and chopped his foot right off. Geez.
Shakespeare live is dicey, to say the least. Done badly, it can be beyond excruciating. All you can do is try to hang on to the text and forget everything else. This production by Trevor Nunn (the man who gave us Cats, among other things) and the Royal Shakespeare Company, cannot be counted among the Shakespeare done bad, but it has its ups and downs. One expects the members of the RSC to be proficient in Shakespeare and they certainly are. Sitting as we were, in Olympus, we could hear perfectly well. If the actors are miked, the mikes are a marvel, if they are not miked, well then I am in awe. The sound was natural and clear, though as is usual with Shakespeare, not everyone spoke clearly (although they did speak more clearly than most local productions I've seen).
Given that Lear is a long play (it clocks in at 3:30 with a 15 minute intermission) Mr. Nunn kept it moving as briskly as possible. Thus, the pacing helped immensely, even though I kept anticipating the intermission as long and hard as I anticipated the storm scene. Both took a while to finally arrive.
The one advantage of sitting in the heights, is that you can see the mise en scene very clearly and this production was clean, spare, solid and well paced.
But you must be raring to know, so what up with Gandolf? Well, one thing is clear: his schlong, which he exposes during the storm, is as long as the play, as even from the heights it was clear to see. Now that we got that out of the way, I kind of kept wishing I could see Michael Gambon play the part. Don't get me wrong, Sir Ian is great. He's got all the chops, and I wonder, sitting where we were, if we did not miss the nuances you can only get from up close. He was a suitably imperious king, prone to violence, stubborn, proud and stupid, but not pathetic. I saw the Laurence Olivier production on TV and his Lear was kind of feeble, weakened by dotage, asking too much for sympathy. Not Sir Ian. He got a lot of mileage out of the physical old age -- the trembling hand, the wobbly walk -- but he was strong of mind. However, I missed the tenderness in some scenes. My favorite scenes of his were the quiet ones, when he has Cordelia in his arms, when he asks of nature what is it that hardens men's hearts. But when he was proud and fierce, he growled too much and there were chunks of gorgeous text I strained to understand. His rhythmic choices were sometimes too virtuoso for my taste. I was a bit frustrated with all that growling.
For some reason, people were dressed like Russians at the time of the czars in the XIX century. It took me like an hour to figure out what historical era they were supposed to be in, until they started to dance like Russians and all that was missing was the dancing bear. The music was confusing too, sometimes Russian, sometimes early XX century vaudeville. Perhaps the melange is intended, it doesn't matter much. The same with the weapons. There are rifles, but people fight with swords (no doubt to show off the magnificent fencing abilities of the actors. The fights rocked). The sounds of war sounded like bomb blasts from more current times. As is usual with productions for current audiences, there is a lot of trying very hard to be funny at the beginning so that people can feel they get the jokes. In some instances, it mildly works; for the most part I find it obnoxious. People laugh at the actors mugging and telegraphing their gestures, not at anything in the text. I hate it when Shakespeare productions pander to the audience. But that is soon forgotten because thankfully King Lear is a dark, dark play.

Here I must stop and say that Shakespeare rules. Whether he was one or many, male or female, dog or cat, he, it RULES.

Some of the actors were terrific. William Gaunt was a stupendous Gloucester. Frances Barber was a fantastic Goneril, and I really liked Oswald, Goneril's servant, played by John Heffernan.
But I hated the fool (Sylvester McCoy). The fool is the truth teller, and he is the closest person to the King. Here, unfortunately, they decided to make him into a hamming, cheap music hall performer and he strenuously overdid every single line. It's bad enough that we audiences today cannot ever hope to laugh at some of the obscure Shakespearean puns; but the actual funny, ironic lines were lost in a merciless barrage of singing and dancing that grated on the nerves. You are supposed to feel enormous pity for the fool, and enormous admiration for his smarts and his love and loyalty. Instead you want him to shut up.
The same with Cordelia (Romola Garai) and Edgar (Ben Meyjes). I liked that this Cordelia was not saintly but fierce and opinionated. However, Miss Garai overacted every gesture and flung herself in all directions rather mechanically. As for Edgar, he was boring, no small feat for an interesting part. When virtuous characters are pains in the ass, it's not a good thing.
All in all, it's a good production of a great, challenging play.

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