Like Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," with which it shares so much harrowing wisdom, Shakespeare's "King Lear" defines tragic grandeur for us. And it's old-fashioned acting grandeur that Ian McKellen showcases in the UCLA Live presentation of the Royal Shakespeare Company touring production, which opened Friday at Royce Hall.
The chance to see a knighted British veteran of the classical stage -- glorious Gandalf from the "Lord of the Rings" series -- tackle what is arguably the greatest role in Western drama has fetched astronomical sums for prime seats on the scalper market. (McKellen's supporting turn in Chekhov's "The Seagull," which is running in repertory, is eliciting a somewhat less frenzied response.) Let the EBay buyer beware, however: Trevor Nunn's staging of "King Lear" is broad and brittle. As for the performance of its star, McKellen's towering portrait of the aged, raging monarch has what can be paradoxically described as an early-20th century freshness.
Laurence Olivier left us a TV-film version of his psychologically astute, slyly comic and ultimately devastating Lear. But McKellen's characterization evokes Olivier's contemporary Donald Wolfit, a barnstorming force of nature whose power reportedly had less to do with modern introspection than the brute passions that are the hallmark of timeless drama.
Similarly disposed, McKellen's Lear gusts across the stage like an angry wind. With a howling voice that can swoop and swerve at will and a ready aura of outraged majesty, he starts off as a petulant, spoiled old fool and ends up a raving Jeremiah. The scale of the performance is appropriately monumental. The play, after all, has a sweep as panoramic as Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" and a collar-grabbing intensity that bears comparison with Beethoven's Fifth. It's darkly awesome stuff, especially when the hotheaded patriarch unleashes imprecations on his betraying daughters from an inner abyss.
Technical virtuosity has always been McKellen's signature strength and weakness, and the Olympian challenge here puts both on display. The choices he makes -- from the surprising inflections he gives familiar lines to the way he can punctuate a moment with a simple prop -- are unfailingly vivid, but they occasionally underscore themselves, as though marking their own brilliance.
Take the handkerchief McKellen resorts to when in the grip of strong emotion. He tears at it, mops his brow and blows his nose like an elephant with a miserable head cold. This little piece of cloth is wielded with such flamboyant expertise that it wouldn't seem amiss if its credits were listed in the program alongside the rest of the cast.
In the first scene confrontation with the willfully reticent Cordelia (Romola Garai), Lear clicks his heels to demand a more effusive expression of love from his favorite daughter. Her stubbornness provokes him to taunt her with the map of the lands she will no longer be inheriting. McKellen's mastery of his physical vocabulary is meant to seduce us, and he succeeds for the most part, even where you're slightly aware of the puppeteer pulling the strings.
The points at which McKellen loses his self-consciousness occur when Lear is at his most furious. Hostility becomes him. The curses he spews are dripping in pickled resentment and paternal ache. When he leaves Regan's home in foaming indignation at his daughters' refusal to host his full train of men, the outside storm can't compare to the cyclone brewing inside him.
In general, Nunn's staging, which ludicrously suggests a quasi-Czarist Russia, takes a more melodramatic approach than is customary today. The backdrop of Christopher Oram's set resembles a crumbling-old theater, which doesn't really make much sense, but at least the ensemble's creaky histrionics seem right at home.
Frances Barber's Goneril and Monica Dolan's Regan practically pantomime their evil natures. Even the hints they provide of the tormented origins of their filial depravity have the exaggerated quality of an old Hollywood potboiler. The aggressive pertness that colors Garai's portrayal of Cordelia in the first act is virtually impossible to reconcile with her character's beatific reappearance at the end of the play. And though Philip Winchester's Edmund makes a dashingly handsome villain, there are times when his over-the-top fiendishness makes it easy to imagine him twirling an imaginary mustache.
In fact, much of the production is writ so large that if it were a silent film, there would hardly be a need for intertitles. Such a style thrives on carnage, and "Lear" affords plenty. But something remarkable happens in those sensationally violent episodes that fails to happen elsewhere in the production -- the actors finally connect to one another.