Trevor Nunn’s new production of King Lear is a reassuringly traditional affair. It opens, confusingly enough, with the same massive organ swell as Arcade Fire’s Intervention, although, sadly, doesn't follow through with the rest of the song. Instead, a tableau establishes the Lear family as a 19th century Russian dynasty: all Cossack hats and military uniforms, greatcoats and elegant ball dresses. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it is to reflect the play’s pairing in rep with Chekhov’s The Seagull in a kind of bad mother/bad father play-off. More likely, it is to provide a suitably lavish-looking historical excuse for lush costume design. Unfortunately for Nunn and co. it has the unintended consequence of forcibly recalling the other big-name, Russian-set, Shakespeare tragedy that is currently running in the West End. Cheap jokes about the RSC being about a hundred years behind Rupert Goold sudden become all too easy.
Another striking comparison with Goold’s Macbeth is that both it and King Lear take place on sets that depict a very definite room, requiring the audience occasionally to simply pretend it's not there, or that it is somewhere else. So, while this Lear is, on many levels, the essence of traditional, it still deploys some pretty theatrical devices. Indeed, much of what makes the first half so strange, is coming to terms with the way that traditional RSC acting looks on stage. After all, who really enters a room, strides across it until they are right in front of the person they intend to address and then bellows in their face? My disbelief is as suspended as anyone’s, but really, why did this ever become a convention?
It took me a good long while to warm into this production. My patience started to ebb when Goneril and Regan both turn out to be brunettes (again), while Romola Garai's Cordelia is a blonde in a pure white dress. Yes. We know she’s the nice one. Do we really need the heavy underlining? Francis Barber and Monica Dolan as the wicked sisters start badly. Barber appears to be channelling everyone from Zoe Wanamaker to Felicity Kendall, while Dolan sounds like a disappointed suburban housewife from a seventies sitcom. You almost expect her dealings with her father to be concluded with a despairing, “Oh, Frank!” It’s hardly regal.
Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s fool is something else. I’m prepared to believe it is a matter of taste, and that some people find him perfectly amusing, but his performance set my teeth on edge. Judging by the polite silence that greeted a majority of his clowning, prattling and spoon-playing a majority of the audience felt much the same. The real problem, though, is that he is so wrapped up in his shtick that he rattles through his lines at such a rate that they are barely comprehensible. When he is hung at the conclusion of the first half of the evening, it felt as if there was a collective sigh of relief.
McKellen’s Lear is in an altogether different class, though. In a production where people seem to be speaking purely because the script dictates it, standing where they are told, and barely feeling it at all, McKellen is a model of sheer presence, meaning and clarity. Sure there are some pretty normal decisions taken regarding his path through the text, but nothing that doesn't come fully to life in his hands.
By the interval - about two hours into a total 3 hours 40 - I am underwhelmed to say the least. But the second half knocks the first into a cocked hat. Perhaps it’s the sudden alteration of pace - scenes fairly tumble over each other to get onstage. There is also a welcome transformation in Barber’s Goneril once her affair with Edmund gets under way. Suddenly, from having no discernable motivation other than Pure Evil, she becomes wholly comprehensible as a woman eaten up by lust. William Gaunt, sans eyes, achieves a whole new level of credibility as Gloucester when no longer required simply to stand on stage and look disapprovingly at Goneril and Regan. But the real revelation comes when Lear and Cordelia are reunited - yes, the scene is written for maximum tear-jerk factor, but few productions come this close to reducing a whole audience -doubtless already familiar with the play - to a sobbing, blubbering mass. The pitiful wretchedness of the characters is almost unbearable. In the main this is a polite, middlebrow reading of a great and stormy tragedy. But toward the end, silly swordfights not withstanding, it begins to achieve a hint of greatness.
For the odd reader who doesn't also regularly follow Dan Bye's blog I proffer the clip which he recently posted of Sir Ian explaining how he acts, on Extras.