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NEW YORK – In an abundant season of Shakespeare that has ranged from the exhilarating Elizabethan presentations on Broadway of the Globe’s Twelfth Night/Richard III double to the bewitching stagecraft of Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, star-driven Shakespeare seems almost passé. But a persuasive argument in its favor comes via Frank Langella’s mighty interpretation of the broken monarch in King Lear. The actor’s emotionally and physically potent performance is fortified by sterling work from an accomplished ensemble and simple but striking design choices, making Angus Jackson’s vigorous production as lucid and gripping an account of this classic tragedy as an audience could desire.
Since winning his third Tony Award in 2007 for playing the disgraced 37th U.S. president in Frost/Nixon, Langella has made some unrewarding stage choices. He appeared on Broadway in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy, two mid-20th century dramas that have not aged particularly well, their windiness nudging the star toward self-inflation. But for the right actor at the right age, King Lear is an odyssey of personal and professional reckoning that elevates and challenges, humbles and humanizes. Langella, 76, responds to it with the expected fierceness, but also with mercurial thoughtfulness and sensitivity, gradually shedding all vanity as his character surrenders to the cruel lessons of bitter experience.
Unlike, say, Kevin Kline and Sam Waterston, to name two recent New York Lears who proved imperfect fits for the role, Langella is a natural. His height and physical presence alone suggest authority, even as he’s bent over, requiring help to ascend the steps of Robert Innes Hopkins’ spare set in the opening scene at court. That deep rumble of a voice and choleric temperament also lend conviction to the conflict of a man unwilling to relinquish the stature of a ruler to age and infirmity, even after he parcels out his domain.
Playful arrogance has often been an essential part of Langella’s stage or screen persona. But here pomposity darkens in a flash into rage as his favorite daughter, Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), declines to compete with her conniving sisters, Goneril (Catherine McCormack) and Regan (Lauren O’Neil), in sycophantic flattery for her share of his inheritance. The fury with which he knocks Cordelia to the ground is genuinely shocking. Banishing the loyal Earl of Kent (Steven Pacey) for defending Cordelia, Lear disinherits the truest and most loving of his daughters, who nonetheless lands on her feet by marrying the King of France (Rob Heaps).
Performed with swift urgency, this establishing action sets in motion Lear’s downfall. Though unnerved by awareness of his diminishing faculties, he’s also hardened by pride that renders him too obtuse to perceive Cordelia’s devotion or Goneril and Regan’s calculation. That changes as those grasping ingrates start revealing their true colors, freely alluding to their father’s senility and making it clear he can no longer expect royal treatment. The perfidy of both sisters is commandingly played; McCormack’s Goneril is a steely, heartless beauty while O’Neil’s Regan has a delicious touch of coarseness that colors her killer instinct.
Also excelling on the villainous side is Max Bennett as Edmund, the treacherous illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (Denis Conway). The production overall invigorates its classical approach with a modern edge, which applies also to Hopkins’ costumes. In his snug black togs, half cape, over-the-knee boots and military buzz cut, Bennett’s Edmund might have stepped straight off a Burberry runway. He’s a sexy schemer who effortlessly incriminates his guileless brother Edgar (Sebastian Armesto) and shows no remorse as he falsely paints their father as a traitor.
The big set-pieces of the drama are expertly handled, from the torrential storm that washes away the last of Lear’s sanity to the grisly horror of Regan egging on her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Tim Treloar), to pluck out Gloucester’s eyes, which he then flings offstage like worthless scraps.
But the production’s real strength, arguably, is in the delicacy with which it allows the pathos to emerge. The fatal misjudgments of the play’s two fathers, Lear and Gloucester, mirror one another, reverberating poignantly through the moving second act as each one comes to face his foolishness. Langella becomes steadily more heartbreaking in the role as his misplaced tenderness resurfaces toward the boyish but compassionate Fool (Harry Melling), and the fugitive Edgar, caked in mud and disguised as the wretched lunatic, Poor Tom. The performances by these younger castmembers are uniformly impressive, without exception revealing a detailed understanding of the text.
Conway also maximizes the emotional impact of blind Gloucester’s suicidal wander through the forest, aided by the son he fails to recognize and yet somehow knows. The redemption of both fathers resonates with intense sorrow, reaching its apex in Lear’s grief as he lovingly spreads Cordelia’s lifeless body across the ground, his touch suggesting that he still half expects her to resume breathing.
The production is a seamless fit for the Harvey stage. The theater’s distressed proscenium blends atmospherically with Hopkins’ set, dominated by massive, rough-hewn wooden pillars that double for castles and forest. The crazy-paving floor of brick and slate tile – as cracked and disordered as Lear’s psyche – opens up to accommodate the downpour of rain. Peter Mumford’s fiery lighting, Fergus O’Hare’s robust sound design and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s economically used music all contribute to a staging which demonstrates that Shakespeare doesn’t require an elaborate directorial concept to be effective.
Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, New York (runs through Feb. 9)
Cast: Frank Langella, Sebastian Armesto, Max Bennett, Denis Conway, Ron Heaps, Rendah Haywood, Isabella Laughland, Catherine McCormack, Harry Melling, Tom Mothersdale, Chu Omambala, Lauren O’Neil, Steven Pacey, William Reay, Michael Sheldon, Parth Thakerar, Tim Treloar, Alan Vicary
Director: Angus Jackson
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Sound designer: Fergus O’Hare
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chichester Festival Theatre
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