MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
In this country, Ian McKellen is probably best known for his role as the villain as Magneto in "X-Men" or as the wizard Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS")
IAN MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) In the common tongue, it says, one ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
NORRIS: But long before he became an international superstar, Ian McKellen was known as the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. Now, McKellen is touring this country in one of the greatest Shakespeare roles: King Lear.
Jeff Lunden has this story.
JEFF LUNDEN: Ian McKellen is one of those actors who, as they say, could read the phonebook and make it entertaining. But you'd probably rather see him doing Shakespeare. He's played Romeo, Macbeth, Richard III, Iago. International Herald Tribune critic Matt Wolf says there was one enormous role still waiting to be done.
MATT WOLF: King Lear is without a doubt the Shakespearean role to which any Shakespearean actor aspires, obviously, and there was a sense of inevitability, I think, about Ian McKellen playing this part. The question was always when would he play it and for whom would he play it?
LUNDEN: The answer is now and for England's Royal Shakespeare Company. At this point in his life, McKellen could be sitting happily on a yacht or a beach or a villa spending all that "Lord of the Rings" loot. But the 68-year-old actor has committed himself to performing "King Lear," along with Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" for an entire year, crisscrossing the globe. While McKellen is unquestionably the star, he says it's a privilege to be part of an ensemble.
MCKELLEN: This group of actors, the Royal Shakespeare Company, have come together to work for over 12 months on two plays. And we don't do that lightly, but we do it with enormous joy, because it's the heart that's why we become actors in the first place. We want to communicate with audiences.
LUNDEN: Both productions have been directed by McKellen's Cambridge classmate and frequent collaborator Trevor Nunn, who is well known for his interpretations of the classics and new plays as he is for directing "Cats." He says he's not alone in thinking McKellen is giving an indelible performance as the great monarch who divides his kingdom amongst his daughters and degenerates into madness.
TREVOR NUNN: I'm very delighted to report that pretty unanimously, the press in England have made their judgment that Ian has given one of the great performances of his career and some of them have said the greatest performance of his career.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING LEAR")
MCKELLEN: (As King Lear) Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven keep me in temper. I would not be mad.
LUNDEN: For Ian McKellen, "King Lear" operates on many levels - cosmic, political and domestic.
MCKELLEN: If I wanted to hang the whole performance, the whole play on one line, it would be when King Lear is crying out as his life is collapsing around him and he fears he's being batted by cruelty and he calls up to the gods, perhaps, and says, is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts? And that is the question that still puzzles psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors and anyone with feeling about life. Where does our ill behavior come from? Are we born with it? Do we learn to do it? Is it madness? Is it sanity? What is it? And those are the sort of depths that the play that go into. And the same time, it's a family drama that everyone can respond to.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING LEAR")
MCKELLEN: (As King Lear) Darkness and devils. Saddle my horses. Call my train together. Degenerate bastard. I'll not trouble you. Yet have I left a daughter.
FRANCES BARBER: (As Goneril) You strike my people and your disordered rabble, make servants of their betters.
MCKELLEN: (As King Lear) Woe, that too late repents.
LUNDEN: Over the course of the tragedy, Lear gets stripped of all his possesses - his power, his family, his sense of self. Indeed, in a famous scene raging against the storm, McKellen's Lear even strips naked. At the play's conclusion when he cradles his dead daughter Cordelia, McKellen says Lear has lost everything.
MCKELLEN: I do defy you, and not to be moved at the sites of the carnage at the end, and a man realizing that his dead daughter will never come again. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never. These are about mighty, mighty parts of human life and human nature.
LUNDEN: Both "King Lear" and Chekhov's "The Seagull" opened on the same day in June at the Royal Shakespeare Company's home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
In the Chekhov, Ian McKellen plays the smallish role of Sorin, brother to a famous actress. He says part of "The Seagull's" appeal is it's about the theater.
MCKELLEN: All the characters in the play relates strongly to the theater that's why I think actors enjoy it so much. There's a play within the playwright at the start of "The Seagull," there are two professional actresses on the stage, there are two professional playwrights, there's a failed actor here and there's the fan who never stops telling boring stories about plays he see. So for anyone who loves the theater, "The Seagull" is the play that reveals all our frailties and all our longings.
LUNDEN: Critic Matt Wolf says seeing both plays in one day was a unique opportunity to observe McKellen's virtuosity up close.
WOLF: What is fascinating is to see somebody like McKellen switch gears, shift degrees of intensity, change tone and focus, going from a majestic titanic Shakespeare tragedy to a mournful Chekhov play, but a Chekhov play that is essentially much more intimate. I mean "The Seagull" is not a play that has the seismic jolts that "King Lear" possesses.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE SEAGULL")
BARBER: (As Irina Arkadina) I don't have any money.
BARBER: (As Irina Arkadina) I don't.
MCKELLEN: No, all I want - I mean, I'm sorry. No, of course, you don't. Oh, no, please forgive me. Oh, no, don't get angry. You are a generous, noble-hearted woman.
BARBER: (As Irina Arkadina) I don't have anybody.
LUNDEN: Frances Barber plays both the fluttery actress Arkadina in "The Seagull" and the ungrateful daughter Goneril in "King Lear." She says as dissimilar as the two plays are on the surface, they work well together intellectually and emotionally.
BARBER: They complement each other and families - families - and despair and unfulfilled desires, longings and, yes, spiking your heart in the end. So I think it's a wonderful idea to watch one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Bring some sandwiches.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUNDEN: "King Lear" and "The Seagull" will be performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through the end of the month. In October, they'll play first in Minneapolis and then Los Angeles before moving to London.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORRIS: And you can see video from both of those productions at our Web site, npr.org.