The Royal Shakespeare Company's "King Lear," directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen, which played here at UCLA's Royce Hall in October 2007 -- without me in the audience, unfortunately -- becomes available to all Americans tonight via the PBS "Great Performances" series. It's not a straight live filming of the stage production but has been redesigned for television, though with the same players wearing, as far as I can tell, the same clothes.
Times theater critic Charles McNulty, reviewing the UCLA performance, found the acting at times overly large, but while there is still a bit of vamping among the villains, the playing must have been dialed down for the camera. (And McKellen's brief onstage nudity -- he drops his pants -- happens out of frame.) In my less- than-expert, regular-guy-who-happens-to-love-Shakespeare opinion, it's certainly worth watching. I'm no scholar of this stuff, but Shakespeare didn't write for scholars; he wrote for the contemporary equivalent of a television audience, which is to say, for everyone, though at a higher level of poetry and thematic purpose and with more subtlety and psychological insight than TV usually wants or gets. But he was Shakespeare, after all.
With certain brief exceptions, this is an easily intelligible, ultimately moving production of a monumental play -- towering and deep, full of dread and mystery, wind and rain, hate and love -- about the limits of human power and what a drag it is getting old. Do I need to say that it's the story of a king who prematurely divides his lands among his daughters, with an eye to becoming their semiretired permanent shared houseguest? Even in a comedy, this plan would lead to trouble.
Although there's a Fool on board, there are not a lot of laughs here, even by the standards of Shakespearean tragedy. So bounteous is the misery that it takes two interlinked, mirror-image stories to carry it all. Fathers are betrayed by thankless children, old men are cast out into the elements. And, like "Hamlet," the thing would end with a stage littered with bodies if they didn't keep bearing them off. And yet it's also a story of loyalty and love and of tenderness in the midst of calamity.
Former RSC artistic director Nunn knows his Shakespeare, but he's also the man who mounted "Cats," "Starlight Express" and the British and Broadway productions of "Les Miserables"; he finds the popular entertainment in the august classic. There is some visual razzmatazz here -- I gather that the stage production involved the nightly collapsing of a wall -- though mostly it is calm and composed and quite handsome to behold. The costumes seem Slavic to me, in a late 19th century way, but not so far, either, from what they wear in such science-fiction kingdoms as pictured in "Dune" or "Star Wars."
It is a big play, with a lot of big parts, among which Romola Garai as good daughter Cordelia and Jonathan Hyde as the faithful Earl of Kent make strong impressions. As Lear's Fool, Sylvester McCoy (the seventh incarnation of Doctor Who, sci-fi fans) impresses less well: He's antic sometimes to the point of being difficult to understand. Likewise, the big storm scene drowns the poetry in racket.
At a hale 69, McKellen, the man who was Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings," is still at least a dozen years younger than Lear's "four score and upward," but he keeps his inner action hero in check. The music he makes from his lines may lack the gravity of Laurence Olivier or the intensity of Paul Scofield, to name the two other Lears I know best, but it has fluency and nuance and range, as Lear goes from self-satisfaction to frustrated rage, quiet madness and the exhausted recovery of his wits. McKellen reserves his kingliness for the end, when -- wrung out, disillusioned and cured of himself -- he becomes finally just a father and merely, regally human.
'Great Performances: King Lear'
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)