William Shakespeare’s King Lear, directed by Trevor Nunn.
Westpac St James Theatre, Wellington 13 August 2007.
While it might initially seem odd for a Doctor Who blog to be reviewing a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, let’s not beat about the bush – undoubtedly a major drawcard for the sell-out season of Lear in New Zealand has been its star Sir Ian McKellen. No stranger to the worlds of screen fantasy, his tenure as Gandalf a few blockbusters ago most definitely moved some ticket sales. Given the buzz on the NZDWFC Message Boards then, it’s only a small step to assume that the casting of Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s Fool didn’t hurt in the telefantasy fandom stakes either.
But to give the production its due beyond the interest of fans, I was very impressed. Lear is one of the ‘big’ plays of Shakespeare, carrying with it the tradition of older actors having aged into the lead role (but not too far, given the physical demands evident in this production) and no less demanding roles of Gloucester and Kent. It’s been said that McKellen could be a little young for the role at 68, but I had no concerns. His Lear ages through the play convincingly; a tremor in places, hoarseness in the voice, a wounded stoop – all a shadow of the character’s entrance in military regalia and compliment of retainers. His king is a notably physical being from the outset – setting on servants and striking his daughters. The character’s inevitable descent into isolation and madness maintains a solid continuity through McKellen’s performance, despite the parallel Gloucester storyline and subplot of Goneril and Regan.
In these no lesser characters we have also been spoiled – Frances Barber’s Goneril is reliably cold and manipulative, more than a match for her sister, as ably played by Monica Dolan. Barber’s star turn is apparently in the companion play from the RSC tour, Chekov’s The Seagull, but her Goneril is prize stuff indeed. If any of Lear’s daughters do disappoint it is Cordelia who distinctly doesn’t shine but grates; a shrill performance by Romola Garai doesn’t offer the opportunity to infer a doting relationship between father and favourite daughter, and so it’s left to the Fool, mourning her departure after the fact, to convey some of what that opening scene could not.
And so to Sylvester McCoy’s Fool. When I read about McCoy’s involvement in the play I confess I was a little concerned. Knowing his work primarily from Doctor Who I imagined him at a disadvantage among the play’s leads – but he’s great! Another demanding role, Lear’s Fool is burdened with a large number of lines, songs, moods and – in this production at least – spoons. McCoy’s scenes with McKellen alone are playful, but certainly achieve the mounded performance this Fool is duty-bound to continue. The actor’s past life as a stage ‘shock’ performer certainly is used here as well; his hanging by Regan’s men is done onstage and is indeed disturbing. Falling at the conclusion of the first Act, the curtains remained open with McCoy’s body hanging stage left, slowly turning while the audeince rose to seek out refreshments. Creepy.
Finally, the third of four drawcards for me to this tour: William Gaunt. His Gloucester begins the play much like the king – at the height of his powers with treacherous offspring waiting in the blocks. Gaunt’s voice is as mellow and commanding as ever, and his physical performance as a father betrayed, wounded, blinded and cast out of home is every bit as moving and compelling as McKellen’s. Gloucester’s reunion with his king was heartbreaking stuff, and was the key moment for me in a performance which was well worth admission. I’m very glad to have seen it.
After three hours the cast received a standing ovation; the greatest applause reserved for the play’s star, but not much less for his fellow leads, Sylvester McCoy’s Fool (who had received warm laughter and applause from a decidedly non-fan appearing house) among them. Well deserved.