BAM’s King Lear is Mad Good

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If you couldn’t score tickets to the month-long run of King Lear at BAM, fear not. Bwog newbie Max Friedman shares his thoughts and provides some tips for anyone wanting to make that last ditch effort to see Ian McKellen’s performance (and, if you’re lucky, his wang).

It is hard to imagine a better setting for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of King Lear than the Brooklyn Academy of Music‘s Harvey Theater. The theater appears to have been rediscovered in a state of near collapse, and, though it is now an excellent venue for some of the best theater in New York, the decor maintains the illusion of decrepitude, elaborate murals peeling from the walls and the ornate Corinthian columns standing half destroyed. The whole place exudes a sense of grandeur dimmed by age, majesty (indeed, it was once known as the Majestic) succumbing to the uncontrollable force of time. What could be more appropriate?

And, happily, the play lives up to its home. The astonishingly good cast is led by Sir Ian McKellen (of Gandalf and Magneto fame and Leigh Teabing ignominy) as Lear, and, though none of the other actors match him in celebrity, they all comport themselves admirably (Kent is particularly fine). Ultimately, however, the success of a play like Lear is contingent upon the powers of its lead actor, and McKellen is more than up to the challenge. It is a testament to the quality of his acting that it was only several hours after the show that I realized the scope of his accomplishment. That is because, while I was watching him, he seemed so naturally to occupy the part that I could imagine Lear in no other way: he was Lear.

Later, as I looked back on the show, I realized that his interpretation of the character differed somewhat from my own reading; he played the opening scene, in which Goneril and Regan flatter their father to gain favor and Cordelia declines to do so, with a sense of humor that I had not seen there, but which makes Lear’s character far more coherent. He is lighthearted even after Cordelia refuses him, as he delivers the usually austere line “Nothing will come of nothing.” Only after she asserts her independence a second time do mirth and surprise give way to a sudden surge of anger. In anger too, he captures the conflict between the power of kingship and fatherhood, and the impotence of old age.

McKellen is at his best, however, in the scenes in which Lear goes mad. In his raving he captures the basic sanity of the words he is uttering in disillusionment, while still unquestionably having lost his mind. The difficulty of being simultaneously mad and sane is one that most actors cannot overcome, usually choosing one or the other, but it is essential to the play that Lear be both. It is worth noting, too, that as the trappings of sanity and kingship fall away together, and Lear divests himself of his regal attire, McKellen chooses actually to remove all of his clothing, stumbling about the stage entirely nude (let’s just say he has nothing to be ashamed of). Everything about the performance is, well, quite impressive.

My only complaint, and it is a small one, is that Cordelia seems to become far too subservient in the first scene (and also, to a lesser extent, later in the show) after her initial act of perceived insolence. True, she is a loving daughter, but there is also something of the rebel in her character, in her refusal to humor the silly whims of an aged father. I wish that that were more apparent.

This is the last weekend that King Lear is playing, and, though the whole run has been sold out for months, the theater holds ten or so tickets until an hour before the show every day for students. The day I went, a miserable crowd gathered outside the theater in the rain hoping to snag one when they went on sale, and practically offering sexual favors to anyone who would sell their ticket, but if you want to go down to the theater quite early in the day and camp out it is probably possible to get a ticket. Believe it or not, it is actually worth the wait.

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  1. Gandalf  

    Do not mistake him for some conjurer of cheap tricks!

  2. Andy

    I take issue with the author of this article, when he writes, "he was Lear."

    For you see, he is not Lear. He is Sir Ian. What he does is he thinks of what it would be like to be Lear and then he pretends to be him. How does he know what to say? It's written down for him in a script. How does he know where to stand? People tell him.

    Or perhaps I should put it this way: If you were to draw a graph of Sir Ian from day to day it would go something like, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, *action* NOTHING WILL COME OF NOTHING! *cut*, sir Ian Sir Ian.

    And that is how he acts so well.

  3. da opp  

    I actually asked stephen merchant if he needed felatio. He said no, I said the offer still stood, and we went our separate ways.

  4. Wait  

    Did they set this production of King Lear in some kind of hybrid Victorian era as Kenneth Branagh did with Hamlet? This may be more interesting than I thought.

  5. aaah

    I just watched it. oh man i cannnnnoott wait.

  6. if you missed this  

    because you aren't quick on the trigger, don't want to wait for student rush, or don't have $$$MANY DOLLARS to hack up, you can always come see KCST's production of King Lear this October.

    it's free, too!

  7. Anonymous

    I agree with Andy. No scripts on the night! You have to learn the words.

    I didn't take Cordelia's reaction as subservience. I took it as bewilderment. She probably felt that surely Lear knew how much she loved him, why would he concoct a flimsy test such as he did? How would you respond if one of your parents called you up and demanded that you *prove* how much you love them? I wouldn't even know what to say.

    The most moving moment for me was when the rational Lear surfaced for a split second. I can't remember the exact line but it's something like Heaven keep me from going mad. And Sir Ian plays it so beautifully, like this shining moment of clarity with real fear and sadness in it. Then the madness reasserts itself and you know you will never see the sane man again. It takes real skill to imbue one line with so much longing and grief.

  8. Anonymous

    Here's the line:

    "O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
    Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!"
    - William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.5.51

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