Nunn and Nothingness

Ian McKellen plays Shakespeare and Chekhov, but nobody wins

Michael Feingold

published: September 11, 2007

King Lear and The Seagull are both plays about meaninglessness, but that doesn't mean they don't mean anything. Quite the contrary. The achievement of both plays is that they manage, while depicting the meaningless, arbitrary twists and turns of fate, to create a sense of order that supplies, by its existence, an alternate view: If plays so full of unjust, unexpected, inexplicable reverses can make sense, the universe can probably make sense too. We just don't happen to know what sense it makes. Productions of King Lear and The Seagull, consequently, need their own sense of order to a degree that many plays don't. We'll never understand nature's way of organizing the universe, but at least we can see how some theater artist's sensibility has organized Chekhov's or Shakespeare's depiction of it, and take a little comfort from that. In both plays, it's easy for artists to lose their way. With so much, of such violence, going on, a sense of artistic focus can only be achieved by hard struggle. There are hints of the struggle, but regrettably little achievement, in the two productions by Trevor Nunn, starring Ian McKellen, that the Royal Shakespeare Company has brought to BAM. The most striking feature of both is their overall lack of effect—a kind of topsy-turvy triumph, given the potential cumulative power packed in these two familiar scripts. Maybe the familiarity itself has, in Nunn's approach, bred a degree of contempt. Both plays are handled as merely one bit following another, this bit done this way and that more famous bit done, a little louder and more stagily, that way. The emotional connective tissue, the sense of ongoing life that makes both plays so incredibly vivid in wiser hands, can barely be glimpsed. There are some "new" dabs of interpretative gimmickry—Nunn finds wrong places to show us both the Fool being hanged and Treplev's first suicide attempt. But without a context to make them meaningful, gimmicks are never more than just gimmicks. Shakespeare and Chekhov, who pointedly kept the two incidents I've mentioned offstage, probably had better reasons for doing so than Nunn has for dragging onstage what the authors omitted.

The situation isn't McKellen's fault. Though his previous stage work has always been marred by his tendency to treat every role as the occasion for a show-horse exhibition of technical skill in lieu of a performance, here he is mellow, disciplined, strong where the context demands it rather than show-offy. If he still seems unconnected to his roles, that merely makes him the most visible symptom of the general unconnectedness on Nunn's stage. At quiet moments his Lear is often moving, and his rueful, mildly cranky Sorin in Seagull is even better. He may yet become an actor in his old age.

Both plays have famously troubled audiences in the past: King Lear (though always viewed as great) left post-Restoration England uncomfortable until Nahum Tate supplied a tidier ending, in which Cordelia lived to marry Edgar. The Seagull, premiered by a standard Russian company of its day, left spectators baffled, a reaction that was repeated in Western Europe after Stanislavsky's production rescued it from oblivion. Chekhov's play didn't seem to be about anything, people complained—just as they had once complained that Shakespeare's play seems to come out "wrong," that it has either too many conclusions or none.

In part, the troubled response stems from the complex moral sense that infuses the two works, because both Shakespeare and Chekhov found human beings a fascinating, insoluble problem. In both plays, the "good" characters lose, or die; the "bad" thrive, but only for a while, and not very happily; in the end they'll die too. The moral is not that good has no chance, or that good and bad are purely provisional values, but that, all things considered, good actions generally help human life along a bit better than bad ones.

The difficulty comes in trying to determine, given our tough world, what constitutes a good choice. If the irredeemably evil people in King Lear do things that are inherently vicious, the "good" people often engage in behavior that we only approve because we've been told from the start that they're good. Regan and Goneril are obviously lying to Lear in the first scene, but it's Lear's excessive demand, and Cordelia's equally excessive refusal to cooperate with it, that cause all the trouble. (Similarly, the brutal way we see Gloucester being treated onstage lets Shakespeare downplay the fact that he has, after all, committed treason. If he were caught funneling money to Osama, how many Americans would scream for his eyes to be put out?) In Chekhov, where there are no irredeemably evil people, the choices are even trickier. Konstantin, trapped in a lousy situation, sulks and makes scenes rather than search for a way out; lovestruck, starry-eyed Nina plunges heedlessly into a life that causes herself and others no end of pain. The sources of their agony, Arkadina and Trigorin, may be more successful, but they're hardly happier; as in Lear, what the older generation has that the young lack seems more the will to survive than anything else.

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.

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.