A Review by Polly Wittenberg
The New York theater season is beginning with a bang. The professionals are in town! That is, the Royal Shakespeare Company from Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK has arrived at the BAM Harvey to show us how Shakespeare can and should be done. Something we never see in American productions of the Bardï¿½s works.
This time itï¿½s King Lear, the story of an aging king who decides to divide his realm among his three daughters so he can relax and mooch off them serially for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, the plan fails to take into account the principles of his youngest, most beloved daughter and the desires of the elder pair and their husbands. The play also has lots to say about ï¿½bastardï¿½ sons and the nature of friendship, politics and violence. Unlike others of Shakespeareï¿½s masterpieces, Lear is full of action, not long soliloquies. In a fine production like this one, the 3 1/2 hours it lasts fly by.
The star attraction of this production is the great British stage actor, Sir Ian McKellanï¿½who is better known to movie buffs as Gandalf in ï¿½The Lord of the Ringsï¿½ trilogyï¿½as Lear. McKellan brings every bit of his experience and craft to the role and even strips for a few seconds to reveal fully his very buff (for a senior citizen) physique. His supporters are uniformly a very impressive lot, especially Frances Barber and Monica Dolan as the selfish and evil Goneril and Regan, and Romola Garai as the beautiful and virtuous Cordelia. On the masculine side, there is veteran William Gaunt, noble as the noble Gloucester and, as his evil ï¿½bastardï¿½ son Edmund, Philip Winchester, compelling in his RSC debut season. And I was especially delighted with the contributions of veterans Sylvester McCoy as Learï¿½s Fool and Jonathan Hyde as loyal Kent to an overall grand effort.
These sterling forces were marshaled with great aplomb and pace by the great veteran director Trevor Nunn who really knows how to grab the audience membersï¿½ attention and shut them up. From the moment the musical fanfare blared at the opening of Act I and the actors in gorgeous costumes strode down the heart of Christopher Oramï¿½s grand but crumbling set (which looked perfect in the Harvey) to perform a sort of shadow dance preview of the tragedy to follow, there was nary a cough or a peep from anyone in the audience until the thunderous standing ovation that followed the final scene which had the dead bodies of practically all the main characters arrayed around the stage. Powerful stuff.
There have been several other productions on this play in New York over the past several years. One, starring the estimable Christopher Plummer, was a traditional lugubrious staging from the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario. Another was a hodge-podge at the Public Theater starring the fine American actor Kevin Kline whose performance in this role was competent but no more.
The RSC Lear at the BAM runs only through September 30 and is sold out. But, if you care about Shakespeare or just great theater, I urge you to try to get a ticket. No matter what you pay a scalper, itï¿½ll be cheaper than a trip to London where this production will land in the West End in November.