My girlfriend and I are going to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear on Wednesday. But we’re going alone. My buddy and his wife scalped their tickets for $1,200.
So, yeah, Gandalf in the Most Prestigious Role for Any Actor Too Old to Play Hamlet? I get that it’s a big deal.
In fact, I was at the RSC press conference at the Guthrie last week, and even if I couldn’t tell Ian McKellen from Christopher Lee, I can tell you that these British dudes are baaaad. Granted, the assembled press consisted of three newspaper theater critics, a couple of photographers, and two Guthrie PR people, but when Sir Ian walked in with the rest of his band of Stratford gypsies, it felt like the ’27 Yankees were sitting down to answer a few questions before their improbable exhibition against our hometown beer league squad.
(The Strib has video of the press conference here. I’m the one in the audience squinting and nodding my head like an enthusiastic sophomore suck-up.)
Sir Ian is sixty-nine, but he strutted in like the freakiest theater student in school. He wore amber John Lennon glasses and a heavy, dark-green leather jacket over what looked like white Wimbledon attire from the '20s. His yellowish-gray hair was feathered up like a rooster. His Learbeard was Moses-thick. His shoes were impeccable.
The rest of the actors looked their part as well. Cordelia was lovely in that pale, English rose way. The Fool was short and bald, and acted foolish (he used his water bottle as a microphone). The Duke of Gloucester had that superior, heavy-lidded look of royalty. But at the press conference, the only actor with enough dark charisma to rival Sir Ian was Gerald Kyd. Bearded, raven-haired, Kyd hid under his fedora and slumped back in his chair as if he had someplace else to be.
Kyd’s only a soldier in Lear, but he plays Trigorin, the self-involved short-story writer in The Seagull, the Chekhov play that the troupe is alternating with Lear this week. He’s way too good-looking to be a writer—he’s got that hirsute Colin Farrell thing going on—but I saw him in The Seagull on Saturday night and he killed, even though the Strib said something about how he underplayed his role.
Predictably, the critics are treating The Seagull as little more than a palate cleanser for the main course of Sir Ian in the much meatier role of Lear. Not so. The Seagull is perfectly cast, and devastating in its execution. There’s all that Russian gnashing of teeth and scene chewing, and sometimes the troupe’s controlled London accents can seem out of place, but it was still the best play I’ve ever seen. The language came out of the actors in such a natural way, as if they were living in real time right in front of you. They tear at their breasts and commit suicide and tremble in the rain, but they don’t just do these things because they read them in a script—there is a deeper purpose behind every detail.
Sure, The Seagull can be dreary (it’s about how meaningless life as a member of the human species can be), but Chekhov’s characters are funny, and when the actors are this confident, they don’t have to grandstand. The words come out naturally, and the characters’ insane, cruel actions speak not only for themselves but to all of us. It’s three and a half hours of nihilism performed by nineteenth-century “Russians” who all talk like Julie Andrews, but you can relate to it. Extraordinary, right?
Sure, I know we have an incredible local theater scene with fabulous actors and world-class facilities, blah, blah, blah. And judging from the fact that at least four cell phones went off during the performance on Saturday, Ian McKellan and his team are bringing some folks to the Guthrie who haven’t been to the theater in a while, if ever.
But that’s not such a bad situation. I mean, I probably sound star-struck right now myself, but so did the papers’ nitpicky reviews of The Seagull. Don’t let anyone tell you different: The Seagull was great. Lear is gonna be great. And their collective greatness does not diminish any of our local artistic accomplishments. After all, acting’s Murderers Row is at the Guthrie because we built a theater out here on the prairie that the RSC had to come see for themselves—and they brought their A-game. These guys are good, and we deserve them.
So, whoever is sitting with us tomorrow night—you can come to the Guthrie secure in the knowledge that those $1,200 tickets are going to be worth it.