I start with one of the greatest plays ever written, in a production sold out well before previews even started due to one factor alone: star quality. Sir Ian McKellen, despite his Hollywood fame (Lord of the Rings, X-Men, The DaVinci Code etc), has kept constant to his theatrical roots and has regularly appeared on stage in the last few years (his hilarious Widow Twanky in The Old Vic’s Aladdin and starring in an excellent production of ‘Dance of Death’ to name but two). So it was with much anticipation that I took my seat at the RSC’s temporary main house, The Courtyard Theatre (The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is being rebuilt to a thrust stage design similar to this temporary auditorium), for his King Lear, directed by fellow theatre royalty (former NT and RSC boss) Sir Trevor Nunn. This is Nunn’s third production of Shakespeare’s great meditation on morality, old age and human weakness. Not having been alive for those productions I can’t judge what Sir Trevor has added to this staging, but I can say that the sum of its parts is not wholly satisfactory, certainly many volts short of his electric Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2002.
When you have seen a great Lear you leave the theatre devastated and on the edge of tears (as I was with David Warner at Chichester last year), but at the conclusion of this Lear I was impressed with Sir Ian, but not so enamoured by the lumpy production. Sir Trevor has set his Lear in late 19th/early 20th Century Tsarist Russia, echoing perhaps his production of The Seagull in rep with the same company of actors, which I will discuss later. The Courtyard’s huge thrust stage is not ideal for painting an intimate stage picture- indeed proscenium arch theatre at the RSC is now consigned to history (for example I can’t imagine Rupert Goold's thoughtful arctic staging of The Tempest of last season being possible on such a stage). This space presents a problem for Sir Trevor. The production is, mostly, directed to fit happily on a more traditional stage with a little bit of elongation to fill the Courtyard space (the production tours America and will possibly go to the West End, which may be part of the reason), with actors often self-consciously turning from one side of the stage to the other to address the auditorium, and when minor characters or servants are required they often block the view for a section of the audience. Much of the main action is played downstage in a small area mimicking a pro arch stage. In other words the thrust staging hampers the play and does not lend it extra intimacy as alleged by the pro thrust stage brigade. When I saw the Henry VI trilogy in the same space earlier this year it absolutely worked, the movement, physicality and vitality of the production enveloped the whole stage - this is simply not possible with Lear. As a backdrop to the play we have a monumental decaying ballroom wall with balcony (perhaps even a Victorian theatre?), which is nearly totally unused; pretty but pointless.
The Russian tinted theme worked reasonably well; that is to say it wasn’t intrusive or dominating of the play itself (but then again no particular relevance was added by this choice, perhaps a slightly bland setting). One of the most successful visual aspects of the production was Nunn’s invention: a silent pre dialogue appearance on stage by Lear dressed in gold robes and an eastern crown, wherein his courtiers drop to their knees in dread adoration of their monarch, beautifully setting up Lear as a man of authority just before you see him give that majesty and authority away. McKellen himself gives us a brilliant portrait of vulnerability, firstly by desperately needing his daughters to speak their love rather than just show it, and then by his mental and physical suffering at the hands of those same children. Sir Ian’s bewildered state towards the end of the play was genuinely affecting, it was just that the other players performance and the pathos needed were absent. On the down side of Sir Ian’s performance, it can tend to be a little fussy and even frenetic at times, too many tics and shakes in some scenes, and the relevance and impact of his nakedness at one point, is highly debatable.
Jonathan Hyde’s Kent was loud and declamatory for most of the play, and none of the daughters made a great impact on me (in mitigation Francis Barber was out of the production suffering a leg injury but her understudy was perfectly adequate). William Gaunt’s Gloucester was as great as you would expect from this stage veteran, growing in moral stature as the play went on. Unfortunately his bastard son Edmund (Philip Winchester) was wooden and awkward as our villain. His legitimate brother Edgar was, however, a brighter spot - Ben Meyjes (from Phaedra at The Donmar) gave the part a reality that his stage sibling could not match. The Fool for me was totally wrong - Sylvester McCoy and his rough performance did not in any way convey the affection between Lear and his jester that can be present in a great portrayal. McCoy was fidgety, high pitched and insisted on constantly playing the spoons, when a more thoughtful character is required to guide Lear to bitter truths. Another of Sir Trevor’s innovations is to hang the fool as a dramatic climax to send us off to the interval. Shakespeare certainly did not explicitly kill off the Fool at the end of Act III, and there has always been debate as to his fate after that. I though the Fools hanging was unnecessary and rather sensationalist, and indeed misleading to those who don’t know the play. To add another annoyance to my experience, the star-struck audience seemed to want to have a great time so much that they needed to laugh constantly (to show they understood perhaps?), but Lear nearly striking Cordelia was certainly no place for a laugh in my view; it was a tragic moment of growing mental collapse. All in all a good Lear, but not a great production.
King Lear is presented in rep with The Seagull, also at The Courtyard Theatre. Here Frances Barber’s absence was more keenly felt. Her role of Arkadina, the self absorbed Moscow actress and mother of Konstantin, is central to the play, and a great actress in the role can make or break a production. Barber’s understudy/substitute Melanie Jessop (also her Lear understudy) was, again, perfectly adequate in the role, and good at times, but did not provide half the performance that I had hoped of Ms Barber (but then again, that’s just supposition). Konstantine the troubled son, relegated to a life in the sticks on the family estate, whilst his mother lives it up in the City, is the other role that usually makes or breaks this play. Richard Goulding (fresh from drama school) was simply not up to the task. His mannered and non-natural delivery just did not flow, I felt no real emotion was present in Konstantine, just surface bluster. Mr Goulding is also not the physical type (slightly stocky and slightly ginger) I would expect for the fragile and angry young Russian, a man who wants the revolution in art to start today. I’m not saying that looks should bar anyone from playing a role if they have the talent and clear abilities to overcome the superficial, but when they haven’t, looks at least help. With the clear deficiencies in the main roles, the heart of the play for me shifted to the usually secondary characters, and particularly a superlative performance by Sir Ian McKellen as Sorin, Arkadina’s ailing elderly brother (Sir Ian alternates the role with William Gaunt). Sir Ian so beautifully portrays the old bureaucrat with a passion to have some sort of life before it really is over; he gives us a humorous old man with a glint in his eye, but an emotional intelligence when needed. Indeed, Sir Trevor’s production felt funnier and more zippy than other productions of the play I have seen, a lightness of touch that recognises Chekhov doesn’t have to be gloomy and sombre all the time. Another good performance from Ben Meyjes in the small role of Medvedenko, the unloved and overlooked teacher, and a vast improvement from his Kent in Lear from Jonathan Hyde as Dorn the charming doctor, whose fondness for Konstantine was obvious. Shamreyev the bumptious Estate Manager was played with boorish relish by Guy Williams, completing the well cast and well played lesser roles. So, extraordinarily, despite the absence of Ms Barber and the deficit of Konstantine, I can still judge The Seagull an instructive and enjoyable night at the theatre.