King Lear

VISION QUEST McKellen, left, gives cold comfort to blinded William Gaunt.

VISION QUEST McKellen, left, gives cold comfort to blinded William Gaunt. Photo: Manual Harlan

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, King Lear was considered too damn depressing to be performed as written, but lately it seems to be New York’s favorite tragedy. Worthies as diverse as Alvin Epstein, André De Shields and Kevin Kline have assayed the career-crowning title role in the last three years alone. Now we come to Ian McKellen as the mad fallen patriarch in a touring version by the world-class Royal Shakespeare Company (in repertory with The Seagull). At the risk of sounding fatuously Anglophile, this is classic Lear and you need to see it. Is it radical? No. Will it change the way you think about the tragedy? No. But Trevor Nunn’s production is impeccable straight Bard that, at the very least, sets the bar to which some aspire—and that others aim to break.

This is theater as opera—fiercely attentive to detail, faithful to every word of the script and conscious of the production history. Like most opera, it’s also long—nearly four hours. However, there’s not a slack or wasted moment, from the opening procession accompanied by deafening organ music, to the shattering final tableau on a corpse-strewn battlefield.

McKellen draws on his deep bag of thespian tricks, from arch, foxy malevolence to saintly beneficence, and in Lear’s descent, he hits every point on that spectrum. But he’s not alone up there commanding the elements. Nunn’s production is stuffed with choice actors, including Jonathan Hyde’s staunch and terrier-tenacious Kent; Sylvester McCoy’s pathetic, impish Fool and Ben Meyjes’s uncommonly strong, persuasive Edgar. The run has been sold out for months, but try for the cancellation line. Tickets are worth a king’s ransom.

BAM Harvey Theater. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Trevor Nunn. With Ian McKellen. 3hrs 45mins. One intermission.