Kopecks, Kings and Kvetchers

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's still two weeks until the opening night of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear at UCLA Live, but the drama has already begun. Demand for tickets is reaching stadium concert insanity. Today, a posting on CraigsList is offering two balcony seats at Royce Hall for $700 (each!) and traditional scalpers are pushing orchestra tickets for almost $1000.

Is seeing Ian McKellen play King Lear worth that kind of money? (For $700 you can fly to England and see the RSC in their home theater.)

My answer, theater fans—however you pull it off—don't miss this King Lear. It's not that it's a perfect production (it certainly isn't) but of the many lofty Lears mounted over the past few seasons, this one comes closest to making the scope of Shakespeare's play visible on stage.

It can be argued, as many New York critics did, that director Trevor Nunn makes too much visible: Do we need to see Lear's Fool hanged on stage? Does McKellen need to drop his trousers in his mad scene? Does it really need to be almost four hours long?

It's true many of these directorial touches—not to mention setting the play in Russia—add little to the overall impact of the play; but the extended running time is important. Lear is the ultimate tragedy and condensed versions rarely give an audience a full appreciation of its depth. Luckily, the supporting cast here is also excellent, so even trivial exchanges bristle with significance.

In particular, those with McKellen and Sylvester McCoy, as Lear's Fool. McCoy is a wonderful vaudevillian who Sir Ian's Lear treats with the right mixture of dependence and contempt. There are many performances that are praiseworthy, especially Ben Meyjes as Edgar and Philip Winchester's Edmund, but seeing the show last month in New York, there was one moment with McKellen and McCoy that cut through all the hype and pageantry and exposed Lear as I've never before seen on stage.

It's on the heath. Lear has been humbled by his daughters. The storm is raging and the fallen King says "How dost, my boy? Art cold?" Shakespeare writes these lines as two separate questions, but McKellen speaks the second question as a statement of realization: "art cold," he says as he takes the Fool's hands and feels them. It's as if for the first time Lear understands that all human beings share the same natural reactions (like pain, hunger and frigid coldness) that he is now experiencing. Small moments like this—and McKellen and his cast-mates enact a number of them—overpower any misguided dramaturgy and make this a Lear to remember.

Running in repertory with Lear is Chekhov's The Seagull. Tickets for this are still available—although not on the nights with McKellen in the role of Sorin. Director Nunn and his cast rightly play up the The Seagull's comedic aspects; but for a number of reasons, this bird just doesn't fly. The mélange of accents is distracting and the by-committee translation feels forced. The Seagull remains a beautiful play but this staging offers little more than the simple joys of rep, such as Richard Goulding who plays a messenger in Lear one night, only to emerge as an endearingly neurotic Konstantin (and The Seagull's only standout performance) the next.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's King Lear and The Seagull run in repertory from October 19 through the 28 at UCLA Live!

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.