BAM’s King Lear is Mad Good
Written by Bwog Staff
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.