Television review

'King Lear' fitted to small screen

Ian McKellen stars in the TV adaptation of ''King Lear.'' Ian McKellen stars in the TV adaptation of ''King Lear.'' (simon farrell)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / March 25, 2009
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If, like me, you didn't make it to London or New York last season for Ian McKellen's acclaimed performance in "King Lear," you might be interested in tonight's broadcast on PBS's "Great Performances." Just be forewarned: For better and worse, this isn't a film of the live performance, but an adaptation made especially for television.

It's better because codirectors Trevor Nunn (who helmed the stage version) and Chris Hunt can use the strengths of TV, such as closeups and intimately pitched conversational tones - ideal for the intrigues and family quarrels swirling around Shakespeare's aging king. But it's worse because it robs us of the chance to see McKellen as a stage actor, rather than as the familiar filmic presence of, say, "Lord of the Rings." More troublingly, it also transforms "Lear" from one of the world's great plays into a pretty decent TV movie.

Sometimes, to be fair, it's more than decent. At his best, McKellen invests Lear with a breathtaking range of human qualities, making him at once impish and imperious, doddering and poised to command. And the camera shows it all - though not the full frontal nudity of the original stage production, reportedly because McKellen and Nunn thought it would be too distracting on TV.

There's lovely supporting work from Romola Garai, as Cordelia, the loyal daughter whom Lear wrongs because she refuses to flatter him, and from Frances Barber and Monica Dolan as her two wicked, scheming sisters. Dolan's Regan is a scarily self-satisfied follower, but Barber's Goneril is genuinely disturbing, a silken, skulking witch who's as glamorous as she is evil. As Lear's Fool, Sylvester McCoy makes pointed sense out of nonsense; William Gaunt is affectingly bluff as Lear's ally Gloucester, with Philip Winchester's smoothly nasty Edmund and Ben Meyjes's bookishly great-hearted Edgar rounding things out nicely as Gloucester's night-and-day sons.

The camera is particularly noticeable in Edmund's two-faced soliloquies (as McKellen himself points out in a taped interview that accompanies the program). Whenever Edmund turns from his victim of the moment to meditate on his latest plot, Nunn and Hunt have him speak directly into the camera. At first it's jarring - like bad soap opera - but eventually the very creepiness of it comes to underscore Edmund's willingness to exploit whoever is nearby, up to and including us.

At other moments, though - namely any scene that's meant to take place outdoors - the weirdness of this project takes over. Unlike a movie adaptation, this "Lear" does not actually move outside for the famous storm scenes. Instead, it stays on what's clearly a studio set, but one more lushly heathered than any stage would ever be. And then the rain and thunder and lightning start - all more torrential and crashing than a stage storm, yet still not exactly realistic.

The effect leaves us stranded between mediums. It also leaves McKellen and his castmates forced to shout over the effects, till the subtlety of their screen acting is lost without gaining the compensatory vitality of live performance.

That tradeoff, along with some fairly heavy cutting in key scenes and some odd choices in others - showing us the Fool's hanging, for example, though Shakespeare has Lear mention it only late in the day - diminishes the power of this performance. Still, it's better than not having McKellen's Lear at all.

KING LEAR Starring: Ian McKellen, Romola Garai, Frances Barber, Monica Dolan

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 8-11 p.m.

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