Nunn and Nothingness

Ian McKellen plays Shakespeare and Chekhov, but nobody wins

Little of the mapping by which Shakespeare and Chekhov lead us through this thicket of moral confusions survives at BAM, because Nunn's productions, slipshod and capricious in staging, are so erratically performed that it's hard to tell what most of those onstage think they're doing at any given moment. There's lots of overemphasis and shouting, usually where it's uncalled for; the company's slovenly diction and jumble of accents makes hay of all class distinctions, while Nunn's directing makes an even worse hash of every relationship. This Lear starts with the king leading everyone offstage, to ponderous organ music, for what is apparently an important religious ceremony, though his two chief ministers, Kent and Gloucester, stay behind to gossip; this Arkadina (Frances Barber) spends so much time fondling the doctor that you wonder why somebody doesn't slap her. But then, Nunn's treatment of the female characters is uniformly crude and heavy-handed: Barber reduces Arkadina's charm to a set of Lucy Ricardo tantrums; her Goneril is like a Disney witch, balanced by the hypocritical Minnie Mouse of Monica Dolan's Regan. (Dolan's Masha is like a lugubrious mallet, striking every line into a dismal moan.) Most dismaying of all is Romola Garai, whose over-italicized, openly fake indicating makes both Cordelia and Nina nearly unwatchable.

Mapless moral confusions: McKellen and William Gaunt (as Gloucester) in 
King Lear
Manuel Harlan
Mapless moral confusions: McKellen and William Gaunt (as Gloucester) in King Lear

Details

King Lear
By William Shakespeare

The Seagull
By Anton Chekhov
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
718-636-4100

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Some of the men do better. Philip Winchester is a strong, lucid Edmund, and Ben Meyjes, though lacking the comic sense for Medvedenko, gives Edgar a steadily deepening emotional growth. Richard Goulding makes Treplev a touching bundle of nerves, while Guy Williams provides equally effective, and quite different, portraits of Cornwall and Shamrayev. Alone among the principal women, Melanie Jessop comes off credibly as an arrestingly quiet Polina. The costumes for both productions have apparently been pulled from RSC stock; Janet Bench, who did the pulling for Seagull, knows her business. The music for both shows, credited to Steven Edis, sounds more pulled from stock than composed for the occasion—but, given Nunn's desultory approach, it's hard to know what the occasion is. New York has seen four important Lears in the past three years; despite all its good points, this one is the least affecting, and least excitingly acted, of the lot.

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