Monday, September 10, 2007

9 out of every 10 King Lears

Saw Ian McKellen in King Lear last Thursday night (opening night, actually) at BAM. A very brisk production, with a very long (two hour) stretch before intermission, ending with the Fool's prophecy (which is in the Folio but not the Quarto) and then inexplicably cutting the joke at the end ("This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time."). But then, given the bleak way the end of this scene is staged, that's not really a surprise. In this production, you're not shocked when Lear says "And my poor Fool is hanged" in V,iii.

How was it? Engrossing and moving. Excellently acted. Best Regan I've ever seen (Monica Dolan). Fantastic duel scene at the end--a thrillingly-staged saber-on-saber fight scene that roams all over the stage. The two weakest parts (Edmund and Cordelia) were played by actors who are debuting with the National Shakespeare Company as of this production, but all you have to do is picture what a hash two Juilliard grads would make of the roles to realize how much better even the untested British actor is than his or her American counterpart.

And McKellen was fabulous. He has the Peter O'Toole trick of spouting seven or eight sentences together as if they're a single run-on line, and like O'Toole he makes it work brilliantly. There were moments when I wanted more from him (when the Fool gets him to repeat the words "Nothing will come of nothing," there was not a hint of recognition, certainly not Paul Scofield's halting moment in mid-sentence that still haunts me from the Peter Brook movie) (and why isn't that out on DVD, huh?) but there were also moments where I saw and heard things for the first time (the storm scene, the scene with Gloucester) and realized that, like Hamlet, the time that the title character spends offstage is the most important thirty minutes of the play.

So yes, it was very good indeed. Which puts this King Lear squarely in the minority of stage versions that I (or for that matter, you) will ever see. And worlds away from the worst, which remains the '96 New York Shakespeare Festival production with F. Murray Abraham, directed by Adrian Hall. After watching that one, I was moved to write a poem, which I have here revised so that it will be a little less particular in its libels and thus hopefully more universal in its appeal. It is a poem which is perfectly suited to every bad King Lear you are ever likely to see; and for those of you who felt like a fly to the gods in their sport during that '96 production, please fill in all the appropriate blanks.

9 Out Of Every 10 King Lears

King Lear, say scholars in the know,
Is Shakespeare’s most demanding show
And if you to [theatre name] go,
You’ll nod at this report
And feel like flies that small boys Mace
Because the gods who rule this place
Have offered up a mental case
To bore us for their sport.

The stage design is seventh grade;
That lighting person? Overpaid,
Because the actors stand in shade
And we sit in the light;
As for direction, it’s so small
There’s very little there at all --
It’s like a late-night men’s room brawl
Staged by a troglodyte.

The pacing’s wrong, the volume’s loud;
The Fool is dull and unendowed;
Cordelia yells like we’re a crowd
And she’s up on the terrace.
Thematically, it’s work-for-hire --
There’s very little to admire
When Lear’s eternal wheel of fire
Feels like a Wheel of Ferris.

Except for Regan, Goneril
And [male part], all the cast looks ill
As if this play was some horse pill
To purge them quick and dirty.
And [insert actor name] plays Lear
Like some demented auctioneer
Who has to meet a financier
For dinner at 10:30.

I know the play’s a field of mines
But this one’s full of moans and whines
From actors who shout out their lines
Like workers on construction --
They stomp across the ugly stage
Avoiding, in their mannered rage,
The depths you’ll find upon the page
But not in this production.

With all the play’s life dead or drained,
We sit there puzzled, bored or pained,
All sentenced to be entertained
Without a hope of pardon
By what should be some live grenades
But feel more like the blunted blades
Of skaters in the Lear Capades
At Madison Square Garden.

And in the end the actors weep
To prove that what they feel is deep;
But we have all been fast asleep
Since Tom O’ Bedlam’s song --
For we that were young when we walked in
Have taken it upon the chin
And by the end of all this din
Have never lived so long.

1 comment:

Horvendile said...

And my poor fool is dead.