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PBS brings McKellen as 'King Lear' to the masses

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Sir Ian McKellen received rave reviews for his performance in the title role of "King Lear," but he's quick to give credit where credit is due.

The playwright.

"Lear — it's all there. It's all pretty obvious what's going on," he said. "Although a psychiatrist reviewed the production and praised me for having clearly done my research into the particularity of Lear's mental problem. I've done nothing of the sort. I've done no research whatsoever. I just played the part as it seemed to me the words wanted me to. And the brilliance was not mine, but Shakespeare's.

"At a time when naturalism wasn't the order of the day in the theater, he (Shakespeare) landed on the naturalistic truths about the psychiatric state of Lear without having, of course, in his own time, the language that we have now to describe it."

Although the tour crossed continents and hemispheres, McKellen could only appear before so many audiences in so many theaters. But his performance will be available to virtually every American on PBS's "Great Performances" March 25 at 7 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7.

"Unless you were able to get to New York, London, Los Angeles, Singapore … or New Zealand at just the right time, you missed unquestionably a major dramatic performance featuring simply titanic talent," said Stephen Segaller, vice president of content for WNET.

"And that is the brilliance of 'Great Performances.' It brings audiences around the country an incredible range of music, drama and dance performances, performances they would never be able to see otherwise."

So, once the tour ended, McKellen and the rest of the cast recorded their production on a soundstage in London. And viewers can see him as King Lear — although he's not promising the same performance someone might have caught in a theater.

"I think my experience of acting can be divided into two," McKellan said. "For the first 15, 20 years, it was my great pride to be a professional who gave the same performance every night. It didn't matter whether you came to a matinee. It didn't matter whether you were in Minneapolis or in London. McKellen would deliver.

"And then I worked with a director who said, 'You're talking about dead theater, Ian, and I want you to be involved in live theater, which is a performance for this audience and this audience alone. Forget last night and don't look forward to tomorrow. This is the event. This is live theater, which gives you a license to respond to not only a particular audience that is there, but respond to the fact that you're 24 hours older than you were when you last played the part.'

"And therefore it would be foolish to think you could do it exactly the same. And 'King Lear' was different every night."

Lear is acknowledged as one of Shakespeare's great roles. As the play opens, the king announces that he will divide his kingdom among his three daughters, according to how much each can profess her love for him. As it progresses, it dramatizes the king's deception, betrayal and eventual descent into madness.

For all his half century of success on stage and screen, his awards, his knighthood, McKellen said he was just "trying to encompass the part and not let Shakespeare down or my fellow actors and everybody else. And it was a constant learning process. And even after a year of doing it, I felt there was more work to be done.

"And I would happily have gone on doing it. It was the rest of the actors who had had enough of working with me perhaps."

He's particularly excited about bringing "King Lear" to an American viewing audience.

"It's always rewarding playing in the States because, depending where you're playing, you may well be playing to an audience who is much less savvy about Shakespeare than world-weary, tired audiences in London who see 'King Lear' twice a year, three 'Hamlets' a year and all that," McKellen said.

"So it's wonderful to play to an audience who potentially doesn't know how the play is going to end, for example."

And yet this was a role he long avoided.

McKellen had been in the play twice before, playing Edgar one time and Kent the other. But Lear himself "was never a part I wanted to play … because I knew, from having seen other people play it up close, that it takes an awful lot out of you. … You have to delve into it. You have to go on this journey.

"And I'm 70 this year (on May 25), but Lear is over 80 at a time when people died much younger than that. So he's a man retiring, aware of his frailties of mind and body, hoping to enjoy his retirement, and at that point the person he loves most in the world, his daughter, chooses to rebel. … And in rejecting her, he goes on a journey. And it's very moving, to me, as I'm facing old age, to think it's not too late to do anything. It's not too late to totally reverse your attitude to life as you've lived it so far and emerge a better person."

The actor sees the part as a challenge to be undertaken in every performance.

"Shakespeare is the most popular playwright of this and of all times, principally, I think, because he wrote some fabulous parts," McKellen said. "Actors want to take on the challenge. And there's nothing more exciting for an audience than seeing an actor trying to match up to these great parts."

If you watch …

What: "Great Performances: King Lear"

When: March 25, 7 p.m.

Channel: KUED-Ch. 7