Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 31 May
, 2007
**** / ***

In one respect this review is pointless, since these press performances come some ten weeks into a 13-week repertory run which is already entirely sold out. (To be fair, the press performance of King Lear was postponed for eight weeks due to injury.) So, how does this long-awaited (and even longer by critics) Ian McKellen diptych emerge? First things first: he excels as Lear... not unambiguously the best I have seen, but certainly amongst the medal-winners. Every moment is beautifully pitched, from the initial "division of the kingdom" speech which he reads off cue cards to his final expiration, almost inadvertently, between phrases of grief for the dead Cordelia. This is not a Lear who blows and cracks his cheeks to vie with the storm on the heath; he feels his control slipping little by little, until he is utterly distracted but never raging or raving.

As his daughters, Frances Barber's Goneril is not a creature of subtlety (a friend described her as "a bit Cruella De Vil"), but plain in her fire and spite, first against her father then her sister Regan – Monica Dolan, much more sweet-voiced and two-faced. Romola Garai's Cordelia at first laughs through her Act One testimony of filial love, until the deadly earnest of her father becomes clear. Sylvester McCoy, having played one fool or another for most of his life, knows instinctively how to caper with an edge of mordancy, even when playing the spoons. Above all, this is a godless world; never have we seen so many prayers offered up only to remain contemptuously unanswered. Stuff happens, and it just keeps on happening.

The weak link is the Gloucester family. William Gaunt as the Earl is perfectly serviceable, especially after his blinding when he finds a sea-wrack of fatalism. However, neither Philip Winchester as the villainous Edmund nor Ben Meyjes as Edgar give any real depth to their character; Meyjes resorts by the final scene to alternating phrases in a whisper and a roar. Director Trevor Nunn has been known to make a point of casting, as it were, authentically young actors; it paid off with Ben Whishaw as his Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2004, but it does not do so here.

Nor does it in the first of Chekhov's four great masterpieces of rural bourgeois non-achievement: Richard Goulding's tortured young artist Konstantin should simply be confined to his room until he has written something decent enough to justify his outpourings. Barber enjoys herself as Arkadina, Konstantin's actress mother who insists on being the centre of attention, and McKellen deploys his light comic touch to make her brother Sorin an unassuming foil. But no-one really commands attention, with the sole exception of Dolan as the ruefully self-aware steward's daughter Masha. It is Nunn's bad fortune to beget our third major Seagull within a year, following Katie Mitchell's overly stylised outing at the National Theatre and Ian Rickson's near-definitive one at the Royal Court. Nunn's production, whilst thoroughly adequate in itself, brings nothing essential to a market currently Seagulled out.

Is there a synergy, a common thread between the two shows ? Well, Lear's court is costumed in early-Tsarist militaria, making the king with his onion crown resemble Sir Ian the Terrible. But there is no obvious conceptual unifier beyond Christopher Oram's set design (a palace which gradually collapses through Lear and is about halfway restored as the dilapidated country house of The Seagull) and the most nebulous parent-and-child motif. And were they worth waiting for? Probably and meh, in that order. It has just been announced that both plays will transfer for a West End season (in the unwelcoming, inappropriate New London Theatre) in November, so there's a point to this review yet.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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