Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Out-of-Towners — Theater Edition

October 27, 2007

Ian McKellen and Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s Fool
Photo: Sara Krulwich/NYT 2007
The other big guests in town this week were the members of the Royal Shakespeare Company who wrap up their US tour this week at UCLA’s Royce Hall with their productions of King Lear and Chekhov's The Seagull, which have been showing in repertory. They’re two very high-quality productions that work with varying degrees of success. A fair amount of newspaper ink has already been spilled on these shows both here and in New York largely due to the celebrity status of Ian McKellen who appears in both productions and takes the starring role in Lear. It is his presence that is arguably responsible for the sold-out runs, gushing stories about tickets changing hands for thousands of dollars, and the tossing about of phrases like “event of the season.” And I suppose this might be true to the extent that McKellen’s performance as Lear is masterful and certainly one with which to measure others against. But it is also true that the productions are not equal partners and that there are more than a few issues with both.

The productions themselves are massive, particularly for the Royce Hall stage. Director Trevor Nunn and Designer Christopher Oram’s staging is based around a single gigantic curved terrace and wall that is dressed up not only to contrast the settings of both plays, but, in the case of Lear, to also steadily decay over the course of events on stage. The set is so large that it not only dwarfs the Royce stage, its thrust stage obliterates the first several rows of seating resulting in the need for temporary risers for additional seating on each side of the thrust. All of this is a bit overwhelming but is still quite attractive and exciting as a visual backdrop for a 19th-century Russian country manor. The set design elements have received a fair amount of negative criticism in both the LA Times and the NY Times for being overly indulgent and overblown. All this suggests, however, is how little time these theater critics have spent sitting in America’s opera houses over the last decade where this would appear sparse and unassuming by contrast to much of what currently graces those stages. The performance itself outside of McKellen’s radiant glow is strong including contributions from William Gaunt as Gloucester, Frances Barber as Goneril, and Monica Dolan as Regan. Again the RSC troupe and Nunn have suffered the slings and arrows directed at them for a broad and melodramatic take on Shakespeare, but to me Lear always seems most painful when directors and casts indulge the modern penchant to attempt a psychological complexity to characters who don’t necessarily have them written in to begin with. We may feel that Edmund, Goneril and Regan are unfairly cast as villains, but villains they are, and giving them justifications for being the way they are is more about making us feel better about ourselves than actually serving the purpose of the drama. This King Lear is successful on many fronts – it fills one with melancholy over the cruel inevitability of aging and the bliss of descending into madness in a world gone mad.

Ian McKellen and Richard Goulding in The Seagull
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2007
The RSC's production of Chekhov’s The Seagull is far less successful. Granted, Chekhov is no easy nut to crack, but you can’t help thinking things here could have come off better. For doubters that this sort of Russian drama can’t be pulled off, you need look no further that the National Theater’s incredible production of Gorky’s Philistines from earlier this summer. The pacing throughout this often comic intellectual exercise is glacial where it should have been brisk and energetic, leaving us far too much time to consider in far too much detail some rocky performances by Romola Garai as Nina and Gerald Kyd as Trigorin. The production is dull when is should be heartbreaking and even duller when it is tries to be thought provoking. The comic bits do work well and McKellen has a hand in them again as Sorin but his contribution in this small role is certainly not enough to save the day.


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