Magazine article The Spectator

McKellen's Masterly Lear

Magazine article The Spectator

McKellen's Masterly Lear

Article excerpt

King Lear The Seagull Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The best way to get serious press coverage for your big show is to provoke the hacks by shutting them out from the first night. It's a high-risk strategy but in the case of the now famous King Lear with Ian McKellen it's worked a dream. The director Trevor Nunn and the RSC chief Michael Boyd took a fearful caning for slamming the door, but who were they to worry when the show was already sold out?

They're wily enough to know that good publicity has precious little to do with good reviews. If there wasn't enough mileage in the sad story of the fall from her bike of Frances Barber (Goneril) which caused the closure, there was more than enough in Germaine Greer's diatribe in the Guardian. Greer, who must have paid her way in, called down the wrath of heaven upon the RSC for its abuse of 'the greatest metaphysical poem in the English language', airing her shock and awe at the fleeting exposure of McKellen's manhood during the storm.

Now that Barber's happily back on her pins and the show's finally been 'opened' there remains the almost insuperable problem of saying anything remotely useful about the performance of the play, rather than further inflating the story of the great postponement. Nor do I have much confidence in my judgment after experiencing Lear as a matinée followed by another three hours and 15 minutes of a very full version of The Seagull. With McKellen as Lear and Sorin, Barber as Goneril and Arkadina, and many other fine actors, these are gilt-edged shows which will surely win a rapturous reception on their post-Stratford tours of the UK and abroad. They return for a London season from 12 November at Andrew Lloyd Webber's New London Theatre.

I have more than a little sympathy for the complaints of Greer and the Guardian bloggers that the settings, especially that for Lear, with their backdrop of a tumbledown grandiose theatre, appear to pay some kind of homage to Phantom of the Opera. Technically, the trouble is that the essence of the 1,000-seater Courtyard Theatre is its thrust stage. Impressive scenic constructions at stage rear, and playing much of the action there, is little help to the audibility of the actors. Lear, written for the rhetorical demands of the Jacobean thrust stage, works comparatively well. The Seagull, a chamber composition attuned to the confines of a proscenium theatre, is seriously handicapped.

The stageability of Lear, once well described by Frank Kermode as 'this intractable and implausible work', is always in question. …

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