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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KING LEAR AND THE SEAGULL
at the Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon

GIVING IT UP
By Michael Coveney


The Trevor Nunn RSC ensemble, led by Ian McKellen and Frances Barber, finally opened to the critics on the last day of May, eight weeks after the scheduled opening of King Lear had been undermined by Ms Barber falling off her bicycle and injuring a knee surgery followed, but the show went on with understudy Melanie Jessop in the role of Goneril.

There was a lot of argy-bargy about the time lag on the reviews. The RSC is a company, not a hierarchy of stars, so why not see how it works in adversity? And why was Trevor Nunn, not the artistic director, Michael Boyd, or the chairman, Sir Christopher Bland making the announcements?

The row rumbled on and one free-spirited opinion-monger, Germaine Greer, broke ranks and rubbished King Lear in the Guardian ("The most memorable moment...is when Ian McKellen drops his trousers and displays his impressive genitalia to the audience") fully three weeks before Michael Billington delivered that paper's official verdict (it was a rave, and one I can happily corroborate).

Ms Barber's Goneril is perfectly good but wasn't really worth the wait. And her screeching Arkadina in The Seagull is a performance of one-note vulgarity. In both plays she is virtually acted off the stage by Monica Dolan as a cuttingly contained Regan and a swerving, tragically dipsomaniac Masha. But the music of King Lear, its long slow drag to despair and finality is beautifully done, whereas the Chekhov stutters along with uneven performances and a Konstantin (Richard Goulding) who is patently efficient but totally uninteresting.

By the time these productions arrive in America this fall (they return to London, after a world tour, in November, at the New London where Nunn directed Cats), the Chekhov should have acquired some of the rich humanity and rhythm that characterised Nunn's RSC Three Sisters many moons ago. McKellen plays Sorin in a funny wedged wig of grey curls that makes him resemble the French writer Colette he shares the role, though I hope not the wig, with William Gaunt, who is a wonderfully moving and resolutely spoken Gloucester in Lear.

McKellen's Lear arrives in military greatcoat - the unspecified late 19th century period and setting is similar to that of Nunn's RSC Lear with Donald Sinden thirty years ago - to a crash of organ music at the end of a rigid procession. He reads a prepared speech from prompt cards but suddenly goes "off message" to ask his daughters how much they love him. This sudden, unpredictable spontaneity is a mark of the entire performance. Boris Yeltsin must have been similarly alarming.

He punches Kent full in the stomach for daring to cross him. He tests people all the time with his quickness of thought and sly humour. The trial scene, with the arraignment of the footstool, is a high point of this improvisatory élan. And as the country deteriorates into a war zone, and he claims, convincingly, to be aged four score and upwards, this mighty oak of a despot has dwindled to a husk but grown to inhabit his own manhood. "Every inch a king," he quips, buffing his own private parts

There is a fine sweep and scale to Nunn's production, designed on RSC debut by Christopher Oram: the theatrical background of red curtains and a curving circle is hauntingly devastated in the storm, and Fergus O'Hare's sound design is a splendid cacophony of night cries, dog barks and rumbling bad weather. Sylvester McCoy's music hall Fool, beating out his own accompaniment on a pair of spoons, is hung by the insurgents on a shoddy gallows after delivering his transposed speech of confusion in Albion (&quo

 


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