Trevor Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company much-anticipated productions of King Lear and The Seagull, starring Ian McKellen (pictured), finally opened on the same day last Thursday (31 May 2007, previews from 24 March) at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The original 3 April press performance for King Lear was cancelled at short notice when leading lady Frances Barber (Goneril in the Shakespeare, Madam Arkadina in the Chekhov) was injured in a cycling accident. It was subsequently rescheduled for last week, on the same day as King Lear’s (See News, 10 Apr 2007).
However, given that the Stratford run had already sold out and a November transfer to the West End secured prior to the press performances (See News, 30 May 2007), the critics’ verdicts seem almost an afterthought (a point not missed by some, most notably Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph) – and a mixed one at that.
In the Shakespeare tragedy, critics were divided both about the production overall – described as one that’s “largely satisfying” but “does not storm the heavens” - and McKellen’s performance in the doomed title role – either “majestic” or a “fascinating disappointment”. The Seagull received a warmer reception. But, as the third production of the Chekhov classic in a matter of months from one of the UK’s flagship theatres, following Katie Mitchell’s National Theatre production in the autumn and Ian Rickson’s starry offering at the Royal Court earlier this year, comparisons were inevitably drawn. Nunn’s was judged as largely superior to the former but inferior to the latter - “a Seagull to enjoy even if it offers few startling new insights into Chekhov's masterpiece”.
In addition to Barber and McKellen, who plays the title role in King Lear and shares the role of Sorin with William Gaunt in The Seagull, the company features: Romola Garai, Sylvester McCoy, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Hyde and Ben Meyjes. The productions, designed by Christopher Oram, run in rep in Stratford until 23 June 2007, then tour to Newcastle (29 June–7 July), Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the US, before transferring to the West End’s New London theatre for a limited season from 12 November (See News, 30 May 2007).
Peter Wood for Whatsonstage.com (four stars / three stars) – “Director Trevor Nunn does not storm the heavens here. But this is a fine production, beautifully designed and lit, with a commanding central performance by McKellen. There's a sense of strength throughout the casting with fine supporting performances. This King Lear is better by several country miles than the RSC's last two productions of the play. Ultimately, it may not wring the withers but it is a substantial achievement … The Royal Court staged a marvellous, perfectly flighted production of (The Seagull) earlier this year. Nunn's version certainly doesn't soar that high, but nor is it as earthbound as Katie Mitchell's benighted outing at the National last year. Nunn’s is deft enough to find the humour, sometimes overlooked in English productions (pace Mitchell), with a relaxed and enjoyable turn from McKellen as Sorin. On the other hand, it also finds pain and pathos, most notably in the reunion between Konstantin and Nina - a genuinely moving performance by Romola Garai. On the downside, it features some ugly roaring by Frances Barber which, given the delay of the press night, one would have thought would have been ironed out by now. Good, but no cigars.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars / three stars) – “I can report that Ian McKellen is a majestic, moving Lear and that Trevor Nunn's production is largely satisfying. In McKellen's case, I was reminded of his early triumph as Richard II. That was a young king who was encased in ritual and who had to learn about human suffering: his Lear is an old king who has to undergo a similar moral journey in which he acquires sanity via madness. By his own disrobing, Lear acknowledges he is a member of the human race. McKellen's Lear is a man who is always asking questions. Frances Barber gives us a good, uncomplicated Goneril who is easily the harshest of the three sisters. But it is for McKellen, and his triumphant progress towards a kind of enlightenment, that I shall really remember the occasion … (Nunn’s Seagull) seems to substitute a self-conscious theatricality for any clear vision of Chekhov's masterpiece. Nunn rather overdoes the play's self-referential theatricality. This leads him into a gross error of taste in staging Konstantin's first botched suicide attempt. The stage swarms with panic-stricken extras, while music thumps away in the background - as if this were a scene from Les Miserables, rather than The Seagull. Frances Barber reminds us that Arkadina is a woman who never stops acting. Even better is Ian McKellen, who buoyantly plays her brother, Sorin, as a shaggy-haired eccentric who dramatises his own misfortunes. It's a Seagull to enjoy even if it offers few startling new insights into Chekhov's masterpiece.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars / three stars) - “I found (King Lear) an oddly unmoving production. McKellen gives a performance of great technical resource, full of those unpredictable shifts of tack and gear that betoken cracked wits and incipient senility. He can work revelatory variations on traditional line-readings. Yet often the detail comes over as fussy and unfelt. I was more conscious of an actor making intelligent, surprising choices than of a tragic hero pushed to the limits of experience. McKellen's Lear may expose his genitals on the heath, but the portrayal is too calculated and unspontaneous to give us access to the character's naked heart … (The Seagull) demonstrates all the disadvantages of performing Chekhov on an epic thrust-stage of such lofty height. As in King Lear, the effects are frequently bloated - where Nunn has the Fool hanged by sadistic soldiers at the end of the first half of Shakespeare's tragedy, at the same point in the Chekhov, he makes a comparable and unnecessary innovation by showing us Konstantin's preliminary botched attempt at suicide in a sequence of hyperactive melodrama. McKellen delivers an exquisitely funny performance as Sorin. But Richard Goulding is so nondescript that he can only scrape the surface of Konstantin's oedipal neediness and desperate sense of failure. For work by a director of Nunn's calibre, these paired, cross-cast productions emerge as a double disappointment.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars / four stars) – "(King Lear) allowed Ian McKellen to bring depth, openness and emotional, spiritual and, at times, literal nakedness to the title role he has waited all his life to play. Monica Dolan’s Regan is the neurotic, obviously dangerous sister, dancing with glee as William Gaunt’s kindly Gloucester is blinded, and Barber’s Goneril the subtler one: a woman whose attempts to be reasonable and loving come across as forced and smarmy and whose inner rage, once liberated, knows no bounds. Behind Christopher Oram’s set, the gracefully arced and draped dress circle of a traditional theatre, gradually collapses, like British civilisation itself. And so does McKellen, intoning ‘never’ over Cordelia’s corpse like an old, muffled church bell: a hauntingly painful ending to one of his finest performances … Trevor Nunn’s revival (of The Seagull) is packed with nice detail. He also never forgets that Chekhov called the play a comedy. There’s a lovely performance from Ian McKellen in the relatively small role of Sorin. As the actress Arkadina, Konstantin’s neglectful mother, Frances Barber scores too. You suspect that she doesn’t know if she means lines such as (said of Konstantin) ‘somebody tell me the matter with my son’, for she tends to deliver them as if they belonged in a Jacobean classic. Her habit is to ham up one sentence, then expose her unconcern by offhandedly dropping the next, as (of Nina) ‘that poor girl! No really.’ She’s tactile, brassy, overbearing, narcissistic but perhaps to be pitied, for more than one shriek or screech expresses the nerves of an older woman who fears losing young Trigorin to the younger Nina. The Seagull may be a comedy, but we leave this revival aware that it’s also about failure, pain, loss, disaster.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars / four stars) – “What a fascinating disappointment Ian McKellen's white-bearded, King Lear in his scarlet and gold Ruritanian uniform turns out to be! In the midst of Trevor Nunn's gaudily emphatic production, Sir Ian's performance as the octogenarian monarch who falls from glory to the lowest depths of despair kept me on constant, nervy tenterhooks, even if it too rarely moved me. Sir Ian swings precariously from the traditional to the innovative and back again. The key to his subdued King Lear is chronic unpredictability - right down to the moment when he loses his wits and drawers, revealing his penis to no particular point, good or bad … Trevor Nunn has scored a direct hit with a Seagull suffused in romantic melancholia and darkened by middle-aged sexual scheming. Nunn's latest Chekhovian production owes much of its devastating impact to Romola Garai as Nina. It is a role often lost on the easy shores of sentimentality. That never happens here. Garai changes your idea of what Chekhov intended. Her Nina comes rushing or crashing onto the stage, which designer Christopher Oram cleverly converts from his King Lear set to become a handsome, pool-side Russian estate. Nunn's production, distinguished by his own eloquent version of the text, is spoiled by Frances Barber's vulgar, bawling, burlesquing of Arkadina whom she turns from famous actress into something more like popular music-hall turn. The supporting performances, though, reach superlative heights: Ian McKellen sports weird, wild hair and beard as Arkadina's dying brother, Sorin, who gently laments his wasted life.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “What a piece of work is Trevor Nunn. Though a director of undoubted genius, he sometimes seems, with his tedious logorrhoea and chippy defensiveness, to be a total prat as a human being. Both sides of his personality have been to the fore with this long-awaited King Lear starring Ian McKellen. The show has been running for more than two months - and naturally charging full prices - but only yesterday did Trev graciously condescend to let the press in to review it … It is one of the most lucid, powerful and moving productions of this great tragedy I have ever seen, with McKellen's magnificent Lear destined to be remembered for far more than the moment when the old wizard flashes his impressive wand during a brief - and entirely justified - scene of nudity during the storm. It's been a long and frustrating wait, but Nunn and McKellen have undoubtedly achieved something beautiful and profound.”
- by Malcolm Rock